Each year, people from all over the world attend Space Camp programs at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville.
One recent attendee didn't travel from the other side of the globe, but his life's journey was fraught with a number of challenges, including a dangerous heart condition. His family also didn't have the money to pay for the journey or tuition, but that proved to be a temporary obstacle.
The student's name is Delaney Kilgour, a 13-year-old from Lac La Biche, Alberta, Canada. He and his grandmother, Karen Young, are members of the First (Dene) Nation, which evolved from the Chipewyan people.
When Delaney was 10, he had surgery to repair his damaged heart, which enabled him to engage in physical activities he once missed out on.
“Delaney was into Legos ever since he was a toddler,” Young said of her grandson. “When he would have to go into the hospital in Alberta, he went into the Lego room. His nurse at that time said he was pretty good at building things.”
It was his nurse at Stollery Children’s Hospital that ultimately set Delaney on a path toward Space Camp. She told his family about an engineering and robotics summer camp at the University of Toronto, which is where he first learned of Space Camp. He immediately wanted to go.
“I told him it was quite expensive for him to come this way, and that we had to look at other expenses like meals and all the little things he wanted to pick up,” Young said. “I told him he had to come up with the tuition money.”
Young said Delaney had high-tech interests even as a little kid. When he was in first grade, he was in a special-needs reading program. One of the stories he read was about Buzz Lightyear, the “Toy Story” character.
When Young's father would visit, he and Delaney would make rockets out of empty paper towel rolls. Another teacher would often tell Delaney to “reach for the stars.”
She described her grandson as very shy, but also very determined. He wanted to enter a spelling bee, so he spent six months learning the words. Determined to earn enough money to come to Space Camp, Delaney worked just as hard to earn his $999 tuition.
Young said Delaney did everything a kid can do to earn money, from collecting bottles to pet-sitting. At his school, students were paid money to help supervise kids in kindergarten and first grade. Delaney earned $2.50 each time he did that.
In December, Young checked Delaney's bank account after learning more about the tuition. To her surprise, he had saved enough to go. He had actually saved enough to enroll in a second program, which allowed him to spend two weeks at Space Camp.
Making plans and new friends
Because of his heart condition, Delaney had to get permission from his doctor before he could sign up. Luckily, his doctor signed off on the trip.
Young then began making plans to make the 1,900-mile drive to Alabama. Delaney's plight came to the attention of local and national media outlets. To ensure Young had money to make the trip, the United States Embassy donated money toward travel expenses.
Young and her grandson then hit the road, traveling through several states, including Montana, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi.
“We stopped by Billy the Kid's grave (in New Mexico),” Young said.
After arriving in Alabama, Young encountered a snafu with her hotel reservations. She said the hotel wouldn't honor the off-season rate at which she booked and instead wanted to charge her the higher vacation rate.
Unable to pay the difference in the rate, Young contacted the embassy. She was then connected to Limestone County resident Hanu Karlapalem, who is involved in Global Ties Alabama, an international exchange program. The Karlapalems invited the weary Canadian travelers into their home. They then met Ken and Lydia Hines of Athens, and ended up staying in their home.
“We were so grateful,” Young said. “Through (Global Ties), I have extended family in Alabama.”
While Delaney attended Space Camp during the day, Young immersed herself in the southern culture.
“Your trees are tall here,” she said, when asked about her first impressions of Alabama.
She toured the Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville Botanical Gardens and drove around Athens and Madison. When asked about the food, she said she enjoyed the navy beans and sweet potatoes.
On Friday, Delaney's two-week trip to Space Camp drew to a close. When asked what he liked the most, he said the aircraft simulators, which “felt like you were riding in an actual jet.”
He also enjoyed the robotics-oriented aspects of the camp, especially ones that allowed him to be part of a team. When asked what he wanted to do as an adult, Delaney said he wanted to go into the science or engineering field.
As for Young, she thanked Global Ties for helping her find a place to stay while Delaney lived his dreams.
“I feel like I'm home and don't want to go back,” she said. “I thank the many friends and family here. I'm grateful for that.”