Wandering Heart: Calan Gibney '02

Teacher Calan Gibney ’02 turns a yen for adventure into global volunteerism.  by George Sapio

“We should go somewhere,” said Calan Gibney ’02 idly to her colleague.

“How about New Zealand?” her friend shot back.

There aren’t many people who would — seriously — answer yes, but Calan did — turning her coworker’s spur-of-the-moment suggestion into a fortnight’s jaunt halfway around the world.

The next year she visited Australia. Since then, her wanderlust has taken her to many corners of the world — Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, the base camp at Mount Everest, and on a monthlong journey through Katmandu, Nepal, and Lhasa, Tibet.

The Aspen, Colorado–based high school health and physical education teacher doesn’t like to play tourist. Instead, she combines adventure travel with humanitarian work. “I always make an effort,” Calan says, “to learn about the people and culture.”

Most recently she traveled over two months this past winter to Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, eventually reaching Ghana. There she joined an expedition run by Dragoman, a company that specializes in off-the-beaten-path and volunteer-oriented excursions. Arriving in a small village (which “has no written name in English, but sounds like ‘Bitisti,’ ” Calan says), she and her British and Australian companions were treated to a full-blown welcoming ceremony. The townspeople had never seen so many white people at once, so everyone paraded to the town center, drumming and dancing.

Her team’s work included designing pedagogical materials for a kindergarten, where school material is generally painted on the classroom walls. Her biggest reward, Calan says, was “meeting the community members and learning about their way of life.”

Calan loves her regular teaching job as well. “It’s incredible,” she says. “I always try to be a positive role model and let the students know there’s someone who cares about and will support them.”

 In 2007 she and colleague Chris Bonadies started the International Service Club to fund a trip to Tamaseu, Romania, to help build a playground. Not only did they raise enough money — some from a European Union grant — to take 15 Aspen High students to Romania, but they also raised enough money to give scholarships to four Tamaseu students for four years at universities. She has also volunteered clearing a trading route trail between two Costa Rican mountain communities.

 Small wonder that the health and physical education double major was awarded the 2008 Dick Butera Distinguished Teacher Award, given by her school district. She’d been recognized for her work at IC, too, with the 2002 Ithaca College Physical Education Major of the Year Award.

She loved her time on South Hill. “I had lots of outstanding teachers,” she says, and speaks especially fondly of (now retired) professor Victor “Doc” Mancini, from whom she took courses in health promotion and human movement, “Doc had a positive, influential way of dealing with students,” she says. “He had this great aura that made you want to do better.”

Calan credits her parents, Abigail and John, for instilling in her the twin passions of travel and compassion. Frequent camping trips from their Rhode Island home fueled her travel yen. In third grade she began teaching swimming at the YMCA where her parents volunteered. That continued through high school, when she also volunteered at a food shelter.

Calan, who earned a master’s degree in health and human performance at Montana State University, is now working on her second master’s, this time in school counseling at Adams State College.

Her plans include a return trip to Africa and one to Antarctica. “There are so many places I want to see,” she says. “And I want my travels to lead to more meaningful service work. I want to take those turns off the dirt road, not knowing where they’ll lead.”