When Lakewood residents Todd Calvin and Leesy Barnes begin talking about Up With People, it’s hard to get them to stop. The two alumni of the international singing and dancing group say their experience was the hardest year of their life – but also one of the best.

In 1965, Up With People founder Blanton Belk organized a youth conference to foster world peace through understanding different cultures. The organization has no religious or political affiliation.

Belk formed five singing and dancing casts comprised of 130 adults, ages 18 to 26, who are motivated by a desire to serve others and want to tour the world entertaining others. Singing and dancing experience aren’t required.

“You can teach someone to sing and dance,” Barnes says, “but you can’t teach them to care.”

Prospective cast member interviews are held following each performance. Selected cast members perfect routines during 12-hour, six-day-a-week sessions in Tucson, Ariz.

Calvin decided to defer dental school to travel with the troupe.

“My immediate family thought I’d lost my mind,” he says. Even after his parents traveled to a performance in Montana, they remained unconvinced.

“My dad said: ‘I think this is great, but I still don’t see how this is going to help you in pulling teeth’.”

Meanwhile, Barnes’ parents supported her plans to join Up With People following graduation from the University of Texas.

“I figured I had the rest of my life to work nine-to-five,” Barnes says.

The hardest part of the year is lack of sleep, they say.

“You pray for Mountain Dew (a soft drink) because it has more caffeine than any other soft drink,” Calvin says.

“It’s a year of go, go, go, give, give, give,” Barnes says. “A friend of mine told me: ‘Don’t worry, you can sleep next year.’”

Calvin traveled to Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, West Germany, Finland and numerous U.S. cities during his year with the group. Traveling to non-English speaking countries had its tough moments, he says.

“When I was promoting a show in Denmark, I asked the hotel staff to find a meeting room for us,” Calvin says. “I did a terrible job in getting my point across. Two gentlemen returned with this huge silver tray of meats to sell us.”

Both say the experience gave them confidence in their leadership and organizational abilities, made them more outgoing and spontaneous, and earned them lasting friendships.

Without Up With People, Calvin says, he would have continued to focus upon people’s differences. Now, he says, he looks for their similarities.


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