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Singing While You Serve

Sep 2, 2008
by Liz Daube, '05

Student Matthew Erley volunteers with international performance group Up With People

It’s difficult to summarize what Matthew Erley did during the last six months of 2007. He sang in seven different countries. He milked cows in the Swiss Alps. He helped build houses in the Phillipines, where he also ate chicken feet and encountered the worst poverty of his life.

Erley, a Flagler College business student, was traveling with Up With People, a public-service and performance organization that aims to uplift the underprivileged in communities around the globe. He joined an international cast of students from more than 20 countries who applied and paid to participate in the program, which entails six months of traveling, volunteering, learning, sightseeing and, in Erley’s case, singing.

“The show side of it is a really unique aspect of the program,” Erley said, estimating that he probably completed about 30 performances and 40 community service days during his trip. “The songs portray messages of peace and diversity … People’s stigma with Up With People is it’s sort of hokey, ‘Let’s change the world!’ But it’s about change, people one-on-one helping each other.”

Up With People had a musical focus when it launched in 1965; the group experienced fame for a time, performing in Super Bowl halftime shows and attracting talent like actress Glenn Close. Erley said his parents met while performing with Up With People, and his father is now vice president of marketing for the non-profit. Erley decided to try it because he’s “always enjoyed performing” and wanted a chance to travel “while giving back and staying with host families.”

He documented his experiences in a blog: matthewerley.blogspot.com. Finding time to update it was tough, he said, but he wanted a way to share his experience.

“Mentally, it wears you out – and physically,” Erley said. “But you’re having such a good time because you’re in a different place each week. You’re always doing something or learning something … I feel like I grew up so much. My views on all kinds of things are different.”

Erley said the volunteers came from a variety of backgrounds, and they frequently challenged each other’s opinions on issues like race and sexual orientation. Language barriers meant less conversation with locals, but some of Erley’s most vivid memories come from his Italian host family – none of whom spoke English.

“We’d sit at dinner for an hour and have no idea what we were talking about,” he said. “But I was trying to so hard to figure it out … you feel so much more of a connection.”

The lack of formal communication created more funny incidents than frustrating ones, Erley said – like the time he and another cast member were served some very salty fruit salad. They barely swallowed it down, trying to be polite – then the family tried the dish.

“They immediately spit it out and started yelling at each other,” Erley said, laughing. “Someone had put salt instead of sugar on accident … but we didn’t know any better. It was hilarious.”

Erley said many of the classes Up With People offered dealt with how to improve communities on a local, rather than international, level. It’s an approach he’s trying to incorporate into his everyday life now that he’s returned from the trip. He’s volunteering as a Big Brother and considering a career in non-profit work.

“The world is just really small to me now,” he said. “You don’t have to create some amazing thing to create change … One of our songs lyrics went, ‘One-on-one you can change the world,’ and I really believe in that.”
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