International traveling group Up With People shares, serves and sings their way to a happier world

Up With People Performing

Michelle McLoughlin defines herself as a “closet hippy.” So, after graduating from Northern Arizona University in the late 1980s and not yet ready to return home to Tucson, she decided to follow a lifelong dream: Become a nomad and join Up With People—a group of young adults from around the globe who travel the world promoting messages of peace, love and hope.

Up With People’s current cast celebrates MLK day.

She learned about the group as a child, and after seeing a few of their shows, knew this was where she belonged.

“I was just so moved and inspired by this group that included so many of my passions: people, international communities, music and of course, travel.”

Started in the 1960s as a response to the turbulent times, Up With People focuses on bridging global communities by engaging in service projects and staying with host families at each of their tour stops. This year, Flagstaff is one of them.

After more than 20 years, Up With People returns to northern Arizona for shows on March 6 and 7.

Seeing the world

Using buses, planes, trains and even the occasional boat, traveling is a staple of Up With People. The cast stays with locals at each tour location, enhancing their global connections and giving them insight into how different cultures live.

Another NAU alumna and Flagstaff resident, Michelle Galloway, was on the same cast as McLoughlin.

Galloway with family in Norway
Galloway poses with cast mates in Sweden.

“The diversity in the people we met and stayed with and the things we did were some of my favorite parts of being on the road,” Galloway said. “One of my hosts was an addiction recovery home for youth in Norway. I was proposed to on the streets of the USSR during the white nights (an annual celebration in the summer when the sun never sets). I milked cows each morning on a farm in Minnesota. I went snowmobiling in Saskatchewan, Canada. We spent a day dancing and speaking with hearing-impaired students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.”

Self-proclaimed “travel fiend” Janelle Axton is a member of the current cast coming to Flagstaff. Her parents met while traveling with Up With People and she has grown up immersed in the mission.

“While in Thailand, one of my fellow cast member’s host family took him to an ostrich farm. At the farm, the workers told him that he should ride an ostrich. Thinking this must be a cultural moment that he could not miss out on, he of course said yes. The workers left and came back grinning with helmets and pads in hand that they strapped on him. They mounted him on the ostrich and off it went, running across the fields with the workers chasing after him. After they finally reigned in the ostrich, they laughed and said, ‘crazy American, no one ever rides ostriches!’”

The host family experience in Up With People is a symbiotic one. McLoughlin said the families have the opportunity to meet a young person from somewhere else and learn about their backgrounds, dreams, goals and families. Both parties can keep in touch, maintaining those connections for a lifetime.

Galloway saved a quote from her host family book: “Sharing our home with you was one of the best things to happen to us. To have someone step into your life and leave such a lasting and indelible mark from being such a positive, vivacious and beautiful person is a joy. And enjoy we did!”

Both Galloway and McLoughlin attribute their successful transition to life on the road with Up With People to their time living on campus at NAU before they began traveling.

Axton Host Family in Denver
Cast mates with longtime host family.

“Living in a dorm away from my family made the reality of being away from home for a year less difficult. We had limited access to call home. We had to send actual snail mail letters and call our families collect if we wanted to talk briefly, similar to college,” McLoughlin said. “And of course, my major was Spanish, so that helped too.”

Having been on both sides of hosting, Axton remembers her time with Miho, a cast member her family hosted from Japan.

“Miho moved out to California because of her experience with us, and still joins my family for Thanksgiving every single year and truly feels like another sister to me!” Axton said.

Giving back

Volunteering in the communities the cast visits is a core tenet of Up With People. According to their website, a cast member will participate in more than 150 hours of community service per semester, engaging the community in Up With People’s mission to empower youth.

Giving back to community
Cast member engages with community during service project.

“Through community service and host family stays, cast members gain a more genuine view of the community they are visiting, rather than just traveling through,” Axton said. “It is incredible to see how many hearts the group touches during just one week, and how appreciative people are of someone who simply shows they care about them.”

Galloway shared that at times the service projects were difficult, like when her team worked to engage with elderly people in a memory care unit or speak in front of an entire Rotary Club of men in Denmark at such a young age. However, she said she grew from her experiences and has since made volunteering a staple in not only her life, but also her family’s.

While in Flagstaff, the cast will partner with various organizations, including NAU. The show will benefit AzCASE and Launch Flagstaff, and the cast will facilitate classroom workshops for grades K-12 in local schools.

Michelle poses with cast mates 32 years later
McLoughlin poses with cast mates 32 years later

One of the workshops, titled “We are Many, We are One,” focuses on different ways to share stories about each other’s background through music and games. Another workshop is art-based, where students will design their own personal flags before combining theirs with fellow classmates into a giant classroom flag.

“Engaging in service projects provided some of the most profound moments of traveling with Up with People. Instead of simply traveling through a city and only seeing the tourist sites, we are meeting with people in the community on a much deeper level,” Axton said. “We get to help all over the world and really get to see a part of their culture and lives that many people do not get to experience. We also get to leave cities confident in the knowledge that our group made a positive difference in each place we visit.”

McLoughlin agreed that having the opportunity to make an impact through volunteering alongside her friends was meaningful. She pointed out a verse from Up With People’s theme song: ‘If more people were for people, all people everywhere, there would be a lot less people to worry about and a lot more people who care.’

Putting on a show

Up With People Performing 2
Cast members perform in show.

The two-hour performance, which Axton describes as a high-energy mix of pop songs, international numbers and Up With People original music, has hits like “Up With People,” “Can We Sing a Song of Peace?” and McLoughlin’s favorite, “What Color is God’s Skin?”

“The show touches on topics relevant to this generation such as intercultural understanding, bullying and mental health,” Axton said. “It’s unlike anything you will ever see, and the goal is to have each person walk out feeling motivated and hopeful about this world we all share.”

“You leave the auditorium feeling happy, energized, inspired and hopeful about the possibility for global change,” McLoughlin said. “The songs in the show give me goose bumps almost every single time.”

The cast, which has 85 members, is responsible for more than just performing. Each member also takes on a different role in the production process, like set-up and tear-down, pre-event promotions or being a multilingual master of ceremony, which McLoughlin filled a number of times in various languages, including English, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.

Newspaper clipping features Michelle Galloway and fellow 80s cast member.

“I also was one of the people who sang—but definitely not near a microphone—did ‘swing claps’ (a classic Up With People move) and danced with the big group during the musical numbers,” she said.

Like McLoughlin, Galloway also didn’t have a background in performing arts, so she served as part of the advance team—a group that would travel ahead of the cast to set up the city with service projects and engage with host families.

“Of course, I sang and danced, but I also ran a lot of spotlights, held many banners and even jumped out of a box for a magic show,” Galloway said.

She continues to be involved with Up With People, acting as the site director in Flagstaff for a youth summer camp, Up With People Junior. She is excited the cast is returning to the high country to perform.

“Up With People hasn’t been to Flagstaff in over 20 years and with only one cast on the road per year, it may take them another 20 to return. Don’t miss the show or the opportunity to get involved. It can change your life, and even if it doesn’t, it will be one week of extreme optimism—and who doesn’t need that?”

The shows will be held at 7 p.m. March 6 and 7 at Prochnow Auditorium. Tickets for both shows can be purchased online.


Northern Arizona University LogoMcKenzie McLoughlin | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications