HARLEM — Some of the kids had never been out of the country and others had never stepped foot on an airplane. All of that changed Tuesday night for eight teens from East Harlem as they boarded a van to Kennedy International Airport that would connect them to a flight to Paris, France.
"I want to travel the world when I grow up, so this is a stepping stone," said Sebastian Segura, 16.
The kids from Harlem RBI— an East Harlem nonprofit youth development agency that runs activities like baseball clinics and educational programs to help inner-city youth— are going to connect with their peers at Sport dans la Ville, France's largest non-profit sports organization that also works with kids from difficult neighborhoods.
During their 10-day trip, the kids will participate in community service projects, experience the culture and teach their French peers about softball and baseball. The kids in turn will travel to the French Alps where they will learn to ski.
For Madison Lopez, 15, it will be her first trip out of the country.
"I didn't have that much emotion at first about the trip but now I'm realizing this is a once in a lifetime chance," Lopez said as she prepared to board the van. "I want to go and explore."
Brian Paulino, 17, described the trip as the culmination of the nine years he has spent participating in Harlem RBI's activities. At first, he wasn't so sure about what he could add to the trip and was chosen as an alternate. But when another teen had to drop out, he was picked to fill the spot.
"I doubted myself at first but then I realized there were other people that recognized the hard work I've put in here," said Paulino. "I'm ready to have a new experience and see new things."
Teary-eyed parents hugged their children at the van's departure spot on 101st Street and First Avenue. Paulino' mother Violet Rodriguez was particularly moved. She brought her son a camera and told him to cherish the trip.
"It's like he's living my dreams. I've never been anywhere," she said as she wiped the tears from her face. "He's doing things I've never had an opportunity to do."
Segura's mom Lisa Caceres was also emotional.
"It's another milestone, another step of him moving away from me and growing up, so there's happiness mixed with a little sadness," said Caceres.
The partnership is now in its fifth year. In the summer, kids from Sport dans la Ville will travel to the city in a cultural exchange.
Maiesha Jones, the ninth grade program coordinator at Harlem RBI, was a chaperone for last year's trip. She said the participants always come back with broadened horizons.
"For some of our kids, all they know is the 'hood and what they see on T.V. The kids have fun on the trip but they come back with a new maturity," said Jones.
Paulino said he learned a powerful lesson before he even stepped on the van.
"I have to try to new things," he said after receiving a bear hug from his mother.