SHERIDAN — As the family gathers around the table for dinner in the close-quartered kitchen, the smells of incense and fish permeate the air.
Though the three girls sitting together all refer to the elders as “mom and dad” it is obvious this is no traditional family.
Here in the small rural town of Erlin, Taiwan, the four-story home is housing a visitor, young, thin and blonde but with wisdom in her eyes.
Mom dishes out another helping of fish to her youngest and oldest of four birth daughters, 25 and 29 years old, but saves the biggest portion for the teenage guest, a sign of appreciation for her presence in Taiwan.
Knowing that Mom doesn’t speak English, the blonde attempts to gesture that she is full, a more polite attempt to convey that she doesn’t really care for fish.
With a “yum” sound and a nod, the fish keeps coming.
As she chews her way through the traditional, and surprisingly tasty, Taiwanese dish, she is grateful that her “sister” who speaks some English is here.
Thinking back to another day when she got home before anyone else and spent two hours trying to figure out the complex questions Mom was asking her, only to learn she simply wanted to know how her day was, the ability to communicate beyond smiles and hand motions has become a convenience she no longer takes for granted.
After dinner she heads upstairs to her room — which in the narrow home is on its own floor — and closes the door, closing out the incensed air that wafts throughout the entire home.
“It smells like America in here,” she thinks to herself as she unpacks her suitcase.
She will only spend one week in this home, one of 44 she will occupy this year throughout the world, but for now, in this moment, she is home.
“I’ve had so many great, wonderful stories and so many great, wonderful dinners,” Brekken Baker said, sitting in a café in downtown Sheridan.
As she relaxes with her American lunch of corn chowder and a fruit smoothie, you can see through her smile that in her head she is revisiting somewhere else far away.
Baker will spend this summer in her hometown of Sheridan for the first time since graduating from Sheridan High School, but she doesn’t plan to stay long.
For the past two years she has been traveling the world with the group Up With People, performing song and dance with a group of 100 students representing 20 different countries.
Up With People pairs young adults ages 17-29 with communities and families a week at a time to perform acts of community service capped off by a Saturday night production uniting them all through the power of music.
Unique from many other options young people explore, the multi-faceted program can be hard for some to understand.
The participants sometimes refer to themselves as students, most of the time as cast members and often call the program a study abroad program, though they are not taking classes or earning credits.
“I think I call it a study abroad program because we’re known as global students,” said Baker. “We’re learning through sitting down at someone’s table in Switzerland, in Israel, in Mexico, and figuring out what their lifestyle is like.”
Baker enrolled in the program to spend a year as a cast member, eager to spread her wings beyond her small town, inspired by past local participants and excited to be where she is most comfortable: on stage.
After a full year of being in a new location every Monday with only one break in the travel, Baker was hired by the Up With People organizers to continue traveling with the group but this time telling her tales to locals and encouraging them to join as an Admissions Representative.
“I don’t want to say I was a sales person, I want to say I was more of a motivator, because I am so passionate about what the program does and it’s not so hard to sell it,” Baker said.
Being employed did not lessen the experience or ease the workload as Baker continued to participate in community service when not presenting to classrooms, continued to perform on stage while making sure to give students the chance to shine, continued to learn and experience personal growth while teaching an intern how to do her job and continued to spend every Sunday of every week getting to know a new host family.
Speaking with her, it is easy to see why Up With People wanted her to stay as one after another she recounts tales of screaming lobsters in New England, painting houses in Mexico and even visiting Tel Aviv, Israel, at a time when even the Federal Aviation Administration is weary of traveling there.
But, presumably to their chagrin, Up With People cannot keep her as Baker is on to the next big adventure.
After 88 cities over two years and returning from Israel only weeks ago, Baker decided not to do another year’s contract and has her eyes set on either New York or London where she hopes to land a role in an ongoing musical performance.
Wherever her life and travels may take her next, she will head there with a new perspective and a new goal in mind after learning the most valuable lesson Up With People has to offer.
“I remember sitting in a session two years ago as a student and one of the directors said, ‘make places faces’ and I said well that sounds pretty silly. We’re about to go to some huge, exotic places that I have never been to and that’s what I’m going to focus on, seeing everything there is to see,” Baker reflected. “But then you look back and realize, oh Taiwan, that’s where my family kept feeding me the fish, and you start having these memories of people, not places.
“I value connections with people so much more now. You let these people be your moms and your dads and your brothers and sisters for a little while and you start to realize life’s about connections with other people and how much you put into that is what you get out of it,” she said.