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This fall, 18-year-old Connor Steely painted 75 signs, worked as the deli girl at The Wine Seller and, on Friday, will sing Christmas tunes at the William & Mary Alumni House, all to achieve one goal.
Steely will board a plane Jan. 14 and begin her six-month journey with Up With People, a global education organization working to make a difference through service and music.
“I want to use my time to help someone else other than just myself, while getting something out of the experience,” Steely said. “For me this isn’t looking for what to do with my life, but rather how to do it.”
Steely graduated from Jamestown High School in June and, although she was accepted to several colleges and toured their campuses, she said none were a “perfect fit.”
With her parents’ encouragement, Steely began researching options for a gap year. Her mother had suggested Up With People, as Steely’s godparent’s daughter had participated in the program, but she rejected the idea at first, seeing it as a more music-oriented program than a volunteering opportunity.
After looking more into the program, Steely said she realized it was exactly what she was looking for. Up With People participants live with host families throughout the country and around the world for week-long stays where they complete service projects, participate in workshops and perform in concerts, all at a more affordable price than other gap year programs, she said.
“You get to be part of the community,” Steely said. “You get to be down and dirty with it and do something that will make a lasting impact.”
She applied to the program at the beginning of October and, less than two weeks after completing an in-depth application and 45-minute phone interview, learned she was accepted.
From there, Steely’s focus turned to raising the $18,000 needed to cover the cost of the tour, which will include stops in Mexico, Sweden and Denmark.
She and her parents painted 75 signs to show donors what she will experience with UWP, which she featured in a video on her GoFundMe page. So far Steely has raised more than $3,500 via GoFundMe and has already paid $5,000 in monthly installments for the trip.
“It’s really just been a heartwarming experience to see everyone give and be so happy to give,” Steely said.
She started a job as a housekeeper before switching to her position at The Wine Seller’s deli counter. Her entire paycheck from both jobs will go toward the trip.
“This [trip] is worth so much more than what I would buy otherwise,” Steely said.
She said she is excited to meet the 100-member cast and said she hopes to make lifelong friendships.
“It’s just really exciting to find a group of people that are so like-minded, that want to do this with their time and are really committed to doing this,” Steely said.
Steely will not be the first person in Williamsburg to tour with Up With People. Carolyn Keurajian, executive director of the Williamsburg Symphonia, was a member of the 25th anniversary cast and Cabot Wade, who performs regularly in Williamsburg with UWP alumni Dick Smith and John Tracy as the Smith-Wade Band, was a member of one of the first touring casts in 1966.
Keurajian’s family hosted Up With People participants when she was a child and she toured with the group after college, later becoming the UWP director of special events. She said she is still in touch with fellow participants and said UWP makes the world “a lot smaller.”
“In just about any country I could name someone I know, well enough to give them a call now to see how they’re doing,” Keurajian said.
Wade was part of a local cast in Nashville that composed its own music before he met Smith and Tracy, who would later team up to form the national cast rock band. They were inducted into the Up With People Songwriters Hall of Fame in August.
“Fifty years later we’re still getting together, and Connor Steely can expect to make friendships that will last 50 years,” Wade said.
Keurajian said her piece of advice for Steely would be to take everything she can from her time with Up With People and apply it to her life after UWP. This is already on Steely’s mind, especially as she looks ahead to college next year.
“This is the opportunity that makes you look for another opportunity just as good for the rest of your life,” Steely said.
Dick Smith and Cabot Wade will perform as a duo at a fundraiser concert, which will also feature Steely, at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at the William & Mary Alumni House, located at 500 Richmond Road. Food prepared by Blue Talon Bistro chef David Everett will be served. To RSVP for the event, send an email to email@example.com.