Summit County family takes the ultimate field trip around the world |

Summit County family takes the ultimate field trip around the world

The Johnson family spent 355 days traveling around the world and volunteering at children's homes.
Courtesy Kristy Johnson |


The Johnson family will be giving a presentation about their travels as part of the CMC Speaker Series. They will share photos and speak on what it was like to experience new cultures, traveling with children and how they have changed.

What: Johnson Family Ultimate Trip: 355 Days Traveling the World to Learn in a Meaningful Way

Where: Eileen and Paul Finkel Auditorium, Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 18. At 5 p.m., there will be an international potluck; 6 p.m. presentation

Cost: $5 suggested donation to support scholarships for students at Kailash

Before Kristy and Joe Johnson were even married, they began discussing the idea of spending a year traveling around the world with any children they might have. They wanted their future kids to experience life outside of the country, learning from other cultures and people — an education that couldn’t be received in a classroom.

They kept that dream for the next 12 years, keeping it in the back of their minds after they got married, had their first child, Gabe and then, three years later, Annalise. They kept a travel jar they would drop change into — and, even though the contents of a jar wouldn’t come close to what they needed for the trip, it gave them a tangible goal to work toward.

After years of dreaming, planning and saving, the family decided it was time. They waited until Gabe, who was 11 at the time, had finished fifth grade at Dillon Valley Elementary — giving him the opportunity to finish at the dual language school for a natural break — before embarking on the experience of a lifetime on June 10, 2014.


The Johnson family spent 355 days outside the country and, rather than hopping around the world as quickly as possible, made the deliberate decision to do less places, with more time in each one. The Johnsons decided they didn’t want to just be tourists but to find a way to contribute through service projects along the way, as a piece to the children’s education.

“We had three criteria we were looking for when we were looking for volunteer work,” Kristy said. “One, we wanted to be with kids — we wanted our children to be interacting with children. Two, we wanted it to be non-religious. Three, we wanted it to be that they’ve had families as volunteers before, whole families.”

She and Joe expected the kids to help out at the volunteer sites but knew they would also have to do schoolwork as well and wanted to make sure where they were staying would be appropriate for each member of the family. So they did their research ahead of time.

“I searched hundreds of volunteer sites,” Kristy said. “The way that most of them work is there is a broker in the middle between you and the volunteer agency, and they charge a fee. The fee doesn’t always go back to the organization, and we didn’t want to do that — because you always have to pay to volunteer, which seems counterintuitive, but you do.”

The Johnsons found a site called Kids Worldwide, run by volunteers. The organization serves children’s projects around the world that have been vetted, based on a philosophy of serving the whole child, a holistic philosophy, Kristy said.

“We found two of the children’s homes we ended up working in through that site,” she said.

They ended up at three children’s homes total, two in Nepal and one in Thailand. The family only stayed at the first children’s home in Nepal for a few weeks, as they had some complications, and the entire family got sick. The next children’s home they volunteered at was found through a connection Kristy knew at Colorado Mountain College, where she works, and it ended up being their favorite site of all. The home, called Kailash, was near Katmandu.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How long does it take to stay in one place to really try to get to know the place, know the people, really feel like you have a sense for the community?” she said. “And really, most places will only let you stay for three months, so we tried to stay for three months in those places.”

Kailash, named after a holy mountain in the Himalayas, which was once Tibet, houses orphans, children from disadvantaged families and those from homes in the Himalayas where the nearest school is a three of four hour walk. The organization works to include both Nepali children and Tibetan refugees and selects children from the remote and poor mountain villages in Nepal, placing emphasis on the Tibetan border region.

“What was so meaningful about Kailash was that the general manager said to us, ‘What do you want to do?’” Kristy said.

The family made a list together of the activities and classes they wanted to do with the kids in the home, which included science projects, art contests, mountain biking and yoga. Annalise’s list included cooking, and Gabe wanted to teach about architecture and computer programming. Joe and Kristy held classes about multiple intelligences.

“The education program there is really strict, and it’s all about reading and writing,” she said. “And if you’re not good at those things, then you feel like you’re not smart. And we wanted them to hear that people are intelligent in various ways and try to encourage them to build their confidence.”


While in Nepal, the family set out to do some trekking and met people from 36 different countries on their first outing. Annalise, who was 8 at the beginning of their journey, thrived off the opportunity to meet so many new faces and kept a list of each person they met. She met a girl from Spain who encouraged her enough to get her up a 2,000-step incline. She met Marta, from Brazil, who asked her where she was from. ‘America,’ Annalise said, and Marta asked her which one. Confused, she answered the United States. Marta replied, “then you are from North America. Those of us from South America don’t love it when people don’t make a distinction because there is a difference.” The life lessons bestowed on the children from certain individuals were ones that could never be learned inside a classroom.

“Then she walked a little further, and she met Iggy from Israel, and she said ‘I am so mad at the Chinese,’” Kristy said. “He said, ‘Wow, that’s a really strong statement,’ and she said, ‘Well, we’ve been living with people whose parents had to leave Tibet, and the Chinese came and they destroyed hundreds of monasteries and made the people do it themselves and killed lots of people and I’m just so angry at the Chinese.’ And he said, ‘All the Chinese?’ And she said, ‘Well, no, but still.’ … He said, ‘A lot of people don’t like Israelis either, and I don’t think I’m such a bad guy. … You know what else? Some people don’t like Americans either. … Do you think they shouldn’t like you? … So are you really angry at all the Chinese?’ … I could never have taught her that.”


Over the year, the family spent time in Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, France, Nepal, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico.

“Each of us has our own favorites,” Kristy said. “We all would say that Nepal is super close to our hearts because of the people we met.”

They loved South Africa for the balance of the ecosystem and volunteering at a farm in New Zealand, where they fed animals, trimmed tomatoes, mulched trees and chopped wood.

“We loved pieces of every single place we went, and mostly it was about the connections we were able to make with people,” she said.

It wasn’t always fun every step of the way. Sometimes it was hard traveling with two young children and spending so much time together. The children missed their grandparents and friends, and, when the traveling was hard, they missed them more.

“The year — looking back it went by fast — but when you’re in the middle of it,” she trailed off. “One time Joe and I looked at each other and said, ‘A year is a long time. … We have nine more months.’”

But the not-so-good experiences were still learning opportunities, she said.

“We got pretty good at saying, ‘What can we learn from this — how can we be a better me as a result of this experience,’” she said.

She said she has no regrets, except maybe not traveling longer, and Gabe and Annalise have adjusted seamlessly to going back to school in Summit County.

Kristy hopes their children have a different perspective on living in the U.S. and knows they have grown into more confident and capable individuals.

“I think one of the coolest parts of this experience was being with the kids that closely — and even though at times we wanted to pull our hair out — being able to be present enough to step back and notice them getting more confident,” she said. “Annalise walking with people from 36 different countries; Gabe standing up to this very large man in line who butted in front of him, who said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I was here first,’ in Spanish. And watching their shoulders just go, ‘OK, I can do this’ — watching their shoulders roll back and their chest puff out — just growing in confidence. That was the coolest part.”

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