Witness to poverty Family sells everything for humanitarian yearlong trip

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GROTON — Though many people say they would like to give up everything for something they believe in, few ever go through with it. But for Boston Road resident Teresa Keller, thought gave life to the deed.

After a visit to the Peruvian hinterland and subsequent exposure to poverty the likes of which she had never seen, Keller returned home to Groton a changed woman. She was determined to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged people, not just in South America but around the world.

Thus was born the somewhat unlikely notion of giving up a high-paying job and most of her worldly possessions to raise enough money to travel around the world for a year, volunteering on various humanitarian projects in different countries.

“The whole thing started when I went down to Peru, and for the first time ever, saw real poverty firsthand,” said Keller who, until recently, worked as executive director for the Archeological Institute of America in Boston. “People there were just living in makeshift structures on sand dunes.

“As part of my job, I had to commute into Boston every day,” Keller said. “My life was very busy, traveling and raising money and I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with my kids. But I always thought that someday, I wanted to do something to help people. Well, after visiting Peru, I decided that someday was here.”

She left her job, sold her house, got rid of her car and moved into a rented apartment. With the money saved, by traveling light and cheaply, and some fundraising, she saved enough to pay for herself, three of her children — Jennifer Manglass, 18; Alex Gagliardo, 13; and Ella Gagliardo, 12 — and her daughter’s best friend, Meagan Franz, 17.

“We will just backpack and stay in developing countries where it’s not very expensive,” said Keller. “Ahead of the trip we started to set up volunteer operations like the one we did in Kenya at a village where they take care of kids who are HIV positive. I felt that since I had a fundraising background, how could I volunteer in that village and not do more to help the people there? They needed houses; they needed wells for water to grow food.

“One thing led to another,” she said, “so eventually we decided to start a not-for-profit to raise money and awareness. We wanted to promote cultural understanding between people and countries because in America, we don’t have as good an understanding of other cultures as we should have. I think it’s important in our global world that we understand each other.”

Keller discovered that there were others who felt the same as she did including supporters Doug Tilden, Jennifer Klahn and Anna Davis who became members of the board of directors of her non-profit organization.

With them, Keller set up “Round the World With Us,” which will be supporting their yearlong trip as they work to establish 12 humanitarian projects on four or five continents during the next year.

“And while we’re doing that, we’ll be posting interesting content for kids on our Web site,” said Keller. “There’ll be fun facts, and reports covering food, sports and cultural traditions. I figure that once students become interested in those things, we can then provide other content covering global issues.”

In a special arrangement with Groton-Dunstable’s Middle School, students there will be able to follow the Kellers’ progress on a big world map and video that will be downloaded by history teacher Adam Snodgrass.

Unfortunately for Kellers kids, what can be uploaded can be downloaded as well and the children are expected to keep up with their schoolwork via the Internet.

Although the Kellers intend to pay for their traveling costs themselves, they hope to eventually raise $100,000 through their new nonprofit, which would be completely dedicated to the various charitable projects they hope to establish in different countries. Already, an anonymous donor has promised to give 5 cents for each hit on the group’s Web site. Later, Keller said that she hopes to be able to post video at www.roundtheworldwithus.org that will show donors how their money is improving the lives of people everywhere.

Keller said her group will be doing different things in different countries. For instance, in Peru they will be helping to build a community kitchen and day-care center and in India, they will be teaching children vocational skills. But they will not be doing it alone. Throughout, they plan to hook up with charitable organizations that are already in country including such groups as Children International and Room To Read.

“My younger daughter was also afraid to fly and of getting the necessary vaccinations. But now that we’ve finished planning and started the first project in Peru, they’re all excited about going out and helping people,” Keller said. “My daughter Jennifer went to volunteer at an orphanage in India and now she’s very excited about going back to visit the children she left behind. So overall, the kids have come to accept the trip.

“I’m not too worried about the trip in general,” continued Keller. “Mostly, I worry about the kids staying well. There are so many diseases you can get. But to protect ourselves, we’ve all had eight vaccinations each.

“I think it’s going to be an amazing experience,” said Keller. “When I went that first time, I just couldn’t believe the poverty I saw in Peru. I was moved to put up money for that first project in Peru. Seeing the community come together to build that kitchen and the day care center was really satisfying to me. It was really amazing to see the impact that only a small amount of money could have on people’s lives.”

But after taking a full year to backpack around the world, what does Keller plan for an encore?

“For the future, I’m hoping that the not-for-profit will be successful and that I can get a new job similar to the one I have now but for a not-for-profit with a humanitarian purpose,” said Keller.

Those interested in finding out more about the Kellers’ trip can visit www.roundtheworldwithus.org.