Travel is irreplaceable. No matter how much you read or learn in school, you can’t capture the real flavor of a place and the people who call it home until you’ve been there. It can feel scary—there are so many unknowns—but taking that risk is part of what makes it so unforgettable. For children, travel is perhaps even more important. Seeing the world’s inequalities first-hand, realizing that any of us could have been born in the slums of Kibera, we learn that there is nothing special about those who are born into privilege. It’s just dumb luck. For those of us who are so lucky, shouldn’t we be doing more to make a difference?
That is the question then 12-year-old Jackson Lewis asked his dad, J.D. J.D. Lewis is an acting coach in Hollywood and a single dad with two sons: 14-year-old Jackson and 9-year-old Buck. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle push. J.D. took his son’s question to heart and began, that same night, to plan a year-long adventure that would take the family to 12 countries in 12 months. The ambitious trip would focus on a different humanitarian project in each country, giving the Lewises the chance to really help people all over the world. J.D. wanted his kids to be global citizens. That meant they had to travel the globe.
Part of what makes this story so inspiring is that J.D. Lewis is not a rich man. Like most of us, he’s not someone who could afford to leave his job for a year, so he had to get creative. He cashed in his savings, took out loans, held fund-raisers, found sponsors and set up a donation link on his website. So many of us want, in our hearts, to travel and make a difference, but we have lists of things holding us back—money, time, anxiety about our safety—innumerable reasons why we can’t just pick up and go. J.D. and his sons are demonstrating that none of these obstacles is insurmountable.
It’s not just a matter of overcoming the odds, J.D. Lewis will tell you, it’s about your life. Its remarkable how much the Lewises write on their blogs about feeling like their lives are really being lived. They also comment a lot on the strange disconnect between the routine—home, mortgages, work, soccer practice, school—and the real-world education they’re getting on the road—orphanages, needy children, illness, kindness. People living very difficult lives all over the world are welcoming the Lewises into their homes.
So far the family has worked at a school in Mangapwani, Zanzibar; with HIV-positive children in Kenya; with autistic and down-syndrome children at an orphanage in Thailand; and with Tibetan refugees in India. This year, they celebrated Thanksgiving in Rwanda.
J.D. Lewis is planning long-term. He sees the family’s trip as a maiden voyage, blazing a trail of humanitarian work that will guide future volun-tourists via his organization, Twelve in Twelve. He hopes their story will inspire others to travel with their families. I hope so too.