From sea to shining sea

schandler@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2013 

  • Why ‘Gump Trip’? The family dubbed their adventure “Gump Trip” (and their RV “Forrest”) because of a nickname Brenda Berg earned from a Forrest Gump-like knack for encountering extraordinary people entirely by accident. It started when she went to summer camp with the brother of the singer Prince, and Berg said that on this trip she hopes “we’re going to just keep Gumping our way and have that much more to share with other kids.” Join the journey • Watch the travel pages in Arts & Living for periodic updates from the Bergs’ travels. • To read blog posts from Anton and Kelly or to donate money to help buy books for low-income students at schools along the Gump Trip route, visit gumptrip.com.

When 10-year-old Kelly Berg first told her friends about the seven-month cross-country family RV trip her mom was planning, the response was: “Is your mom crazy?”

But that quickly gave way to a little bit of envy when they heard the details: Kelly is spending the second half of fifth grade traveling with her mom and 7-year-old brother, Anton, to national parks, historic sites, factories and museums in 48 states to learn about America firsthand.

Their mom, Brenda Berg, is driving “Forrest,” the family’s 32-foot-long RV, down 17,000 miles of highway on a quest to give her kids the kind of education that can come only from experience. Also on board is Marina Kranjec, a 19-year-old exchange student from Sweden. Berg’s husband, Christer, will join parts of the journey when his workload allows.

It’s a full house and an even fuller schedule. When presented with a map of the U.S. to use as a wish list, Kelly and Anton marked about 400 places they wanted to see. Together, the family pared the route to about 90 stops.

The explorers left Raleigh a few days after Christmas, heading first to Florida and getting used to life on the road. The route won’t take them home again until late summer, in time for Kelly to start middle school – but that doesn’t mean they’ll be out of touch.

The children, who attended Stough Elementary in Raleigh and are registered as homeschoolers for this half of the academic year, make frequent blog posts on a website created for the trip. Skype video calls allow Kelly and Anton to share what they learn on the road with their Stough classmates and to sit in on science lessons and other events going on back at school.

“A lot of kids don’t get to do this,” said Kelly, already looking comfortable on the RV’s sofa the day before the trip began. “So it’s really cool that I get to do this.”

Before the Bergs left Raleigh, they took the RV to the school to show to Kelly and Anton’s classmates.

“We said to each and every one of them, ‘We want you to be part of our trip, we want you to go on our trip with us,’” Brenda Berg said. “I can’t wait to spend this time with my kids, and it’s about us, but I also want them to understand that everything we do is about more than just us. I want them to understand that they’re doing this on behalf of other kids who can’t.”

The school was “unbelievably supportive” of the trip, Berg said. “From the first minute we even mentioned it, it was like, ‘Great, how can we be a part of it?’”

Teachers and administrators at Stough were happy to help, principal Cheryl Stidham said, because the trip fits right in with the school’s emphasis on education that reaches beyond classroom walls.

“Many students never have an opportunity to get outside of Raleigh,” she said, “and so I thought this may be a real opportunity for the children at Stough to see the country through the eyes of one of their classmates.”

Donating books to schools

Berg hopes the journey both tightens the family and expands its horizons.

“I hope the kids will just get a better understanding of our country,” she said. “They’ve been abroad, they’ve been to a lot of places, they’ve been on a lot of airplanes. But they’ve never seen our country by the road, and really how massive and how interesting and how diverse.”

To explore that diversity, Kelly and Anton each are interviewing at least one adult they meet each day. The question Kelly chose to ask was “What do you love about America, and what is the one thing you would change?” Anton asks, “If you could live in one book – fact or fiction – what would it be?”

His question stems from the love of books he and his sister share, and another aim of the trip is to share that love of reading with other children. The Bergs have partnered with nonprofit First Book to donate books to schools in need along the way. Friends and family on their route also pitched in with their own book drives before the Bergs even hit the road.

Between the books and the chronicles of the family’s travels online, Berg, 40, hopes to open children’s eyes to all the opportunity America has to offer.

“I’ve been to all 50 states. I traveled the country in the back of my parents’ car” as a child, she said. “It changed the way that I live my life completely. I’m a first-generation college-goer, an entrepreneur. I believe firmly that it’s because of my experiences understanding the scope of this country and understanding the diversity of the country, and I’m hoping that other kids might get that bug and want to go outside of their own comfort zone.”

She’s comfortable with travel, and even with driving an RV that stretches to 50 feet long when the family’s car is hitched to the back. But that doesn’t mean this adventure was an easy decision. She left her job leading Scandinavian Child International, the children’s product distributor she started in 2003. She plans to stay involved as a member of the board, but as a “more-than-full-time entrepreneur,” she said, “I’m gone.”

“I’ve done a lot of really hard things,” she said. “This is by far going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m ready for the challenge.”

‘You will never regret it’

One thing that buoys her is the reaction of people – friends and strangers alike – when she tells them about the trip.

“Almost every single person I’ve talked to has been supportive of it, and excited about it, wishing they could go on it, wanting to contribute, wanting to be part of it,” she said, “and that’s powerful.”

But most powerful is the response from people with older children, who Berg said invariably tell her, “‘You will never regret it.’ I live by those words at this point.”

The weeks leading up to the trip were busy with planning, packing and saying goodbye to friends. But Berg took time to reflect, too, and it dawned on her that “this is my trip, too,” she said.

“I’m excited to see the country as an adult and get my own experience,” she said.

“I think I can be a better parent, I think I can be a better citizen, I think I can be a better business owner. I hope to gain a lot from this trip.”

And though she had some pangs about missing her friends, Kelly was excited, too.

“This is really how I want to be spending the end of my fifth grade,” she said. “I’m telling my friends, ‘I’m going to miss you so much,’ and they’re like, ‘We have to be here, doing school. You’re there, having fun.’ … I’m going to keep in touch with them and everything, so I’m fine. And I’ll see them for middle school.”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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