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Bemidji Middle School student headed to Australia

Kade Leeper, a sixth-grade Bemidji Middle School student, has been selected as a People to People Student Ambassador. Through the program, Leeper will spend 20 days this summer in Australia, learning about their country and culture. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Kade Leeper, a sixth-grader at Bemidji Middle School, has been selected for the People to People Student Ambassador program, earning him a 20-day trip to Australia this summer.

“I’m really excited,” said Leeper, an 11-year-old Delta pod student at BMS.

He initially was nominated for People to People last year by an unknown staff member in the Bemidji School District. He then had to obtain three letters of recommendation and underwent an in-person interview before he was formally accepted into the program.

“It’s a really neat honor,” said Drew Hildenbrand, principal at BMS. “He’s a great kid, wonderful kid. (It will be a) great experience for him.”

The People to People program was established in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who proposed cultural exchanges to develop understanding, friendship and peace.

As a Student Ambassador, Leeper, the son of Buck and Stacie Leeper, will travel to Australia and learn about their culture while also sharing about his own.

“I’m looking forward to meeting new people and experiencing other ways of life,” said Leeper, one of seven middle-schoolers from northern Minnesota and the only Bemidji middle-schooler taking part in the trip.

Leeper and his fellow travelers leave June 30 and return July 22. They will travel throughout Australia, visiting Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and much more.

According to their itinerary, they will get a backstage tour of the world-famous Sydney Opera House and have the chance to rappel through the Blue Mountains, see the Brisbane River, and feed dolphins.

Leeper also will mark his 12th birthday on July 11 and miss local Fourth of July activities.

“I am wondering if we will celebrate it (ourselves) or how they might celebrate it in Australia,” he said.

This will be longest Leeper has been away from home, but he said he was very much looking forward to the opportunity.

Stacie Leeper said he will have a cell phone to stay in touch and expects the hardest part of his being gone will be missing him on his birthday.

But both agreed the length of his absence just might be hardest on Brie, Leeper’s 6-year-old sister.

“Brie idolizes him,” Stacie said. “They just think the world of each other.”

Leeper is now at work getting ready for the trip. Each team member is responsible for researching and presenting on one aspect of Australian life. For Leeper, whose favorite school subject is social studies, he is researching the Australian government.

He also had to write a fictional story about what he would do if he hosted a foreign-exchange student locally. Leeper’s story included plans to visit Itasca State Park and the Paul and Babe statues, and go fishing.

Student Ambassadors must initiate a community-service project. Leeper, whose family already ditch-picks together each year, will volunteer with the Bemidji Community Food Shelf and Beltrami Humane Society.

The trip costs about $8,000. While his family will pay some of his expenses, Leeper himself has been busy fundraising.

With Hildenbrand’s permission, Leeper is selling candy to BMS students and staff members. His family also hosted a March garage sale and a walleye fish fry fundraiser, with silent auction, is set for Saturday.

Leeper is also seeking sponsorships. Stacie Leeper said he has received support from a dozen area businesses.

Even after returning, Leeper will continue to work to pay off the trip, fulfilling promises to rake or clean for those who donated him funds.

“I think it’s important for him to do it,” she said of having her son fundraise himself. “It’s exciting for him, but it’s also his trip. He’s the one benefitting from it.”