Citizenship Counts

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The Phoenix-based nonprofit Citizenship Counts is spreading its message of the value of American citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities that go along with it, to the Nation’s youth with a cross-country bike ride and walk. Learn more about it from Alysa Ullman, executive director and founder of Citizenship Counts.

Ted Simons: An Arizona couple is hiking and biking across the country to support the Citizenship Counts nonprofit. Along the way John and Diane Eckstein are stopping at schools to teach kids what it means to be a good American citizen. Here with more about the journey is Alysa Ullman, Executive Director of Citizenship Counts. Talk about your organization and what you're trying to do here.

Alysa Ullman: We are a national nonprofit organization that's headquartered here in Phoenix. And we work with middle and high school students, essentially we educate them on their rights and responsibilities as citizens of this country and teach them to appreciate and celebrate diversity in the classroom, and the community, and beyond throughout the country. And so we do so by -- we have a series of lesson plans that are integrated into the classroom that teach students about the rights and responsibilities about the naturalization process, it's the kind -- to kind of help them understand what people who weren't fortunate to have been born here, many people from all over the world come here for freedoms that some of us take for granted.

Ted Simons: How many schools are taking part in this?

Alysa Ullman: We work --

Ted Simons: Public schools, private schools?

Alysa Ullman: All of the above. Public, private, and charter schools. We spent the first couple years piloting our program with schools in Arizona, and last year we worked with schools in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Omaha -- So it's wonderful to -- really one of the goals is to increase outreach and awareness for our program.

Ted Simons: I want to get to the journey, but when you describe the curriculum and you describe what your organization does, I keep thinking, what happened to civics classes?

Alysa Ullman: Exactly.

Ted Simons: Are they not there?

Alysa Ullman: They are there, but I think unfortunately social studies so times gets pushed to the side because they're not subjects that are tested on. And so wonderful thing is all of our lesson plans are aligned to the national council of social studies standards, and so there are materials that need to and have to be taught in the classroom. A lot of teachers have chosen to use our materials, because we use these lessons to teach the students, about citizenship and then kind of bring the learning to life. So -- in many communities we work closely with the United States citizenship and immigration services in the federal courts for students to host naturalization ceremonies, or other celebrations of citizenship in their school or in a community venue.

Ted Simons: Hosting those ceremonies, that must be something.

Alysa Ullman: It's one of those things that's hard to describe, the emotion of the ceremonies until you go to one. The first time I went to one I just remembered there was a man there, at 9:30 in the morning, and people from all over the world there and the man was there in a tuxedo. And he said this is the proudest day of his life. So we're just trying to instill that pride in America with these students.

Ted Simons: That's great stuff. We're seeing people here now, going through the process, the kids have to be affected. What in the world are these people doing riding their bicycle from San Diego to New York?

Alysa Ullman: Diane Eckstein is one of our board members who is just been so incredible with ideas and so many ways she's helped us advance our program. And her husband Dr. John Eckstein, and her came to me a little over a year ago with an idea to help with visibility and increasing outreach. That was, they wanted to take about five months to do a walk and bike across the country, partnering with various schools and community groups that would use our lesson plans that would culminate in naturalization ceremonies or other celebrations of citizenship along the way. So you than imagine an incredible undertaking, but just the fact that here you have this prominent physician, Don Eckstein is a physician here locally in the valley, that would give five months of their time and their lives and their effort and money to do this really to kind of help advance our cause. And really be inspiration behind their journey is the life of our founder, a Holocaust survivor, author and proud naturalized citizen herself, and the work of our organization. And along the way we started in San Diego, and we worked with a number of schools and groups, went south, went through Arizona, we had a couple of events here, one in Phoenix and our Tucson event coincided with a centennial event, and from there we went through New Mexico to Las Cruces, Austin, College Station, Dallas, and right now they are right outside of Memphis. So they're about I think 2300 miles through their journey.

Ted Simons: When you say they, that's the couple, and the dog who is -- the dog is keeping a blog.

Alysa Ullman: The dog is keeping a blog. John and Diane have a dog Kip that is accompanying them. We also have two incredible interns, Kelly and Tyler, and they have just been so amazing in terms of helping with logistics along the way. Essentially John and Tyler are 3500 miles is what this journey is from start to finish, and that's actually 10 times the 350-mile death march our founder did towards the end of the Holocaust.

Ted Simons: I wanted to mention more about her, because her story is shown at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and that was the inspiration there. If she can do it, we can certainly ride our bikes across the country was the thought.

Alysa Ullman: Exactly. John said, thinking back to what she went through, during that death march, sleeping outside in the winter and terrible conditions, he said every night he has his wife to go home to, and sleeping comfortably, they're in an R.V., and has a meal to look forward to. So basically he's biking 50 miles one day and the next day they'll do a 10, 15-mile walk with Kip, and bike the next day and take the next day off. And they have -- it's been incredible to see -- I actually attended several of the events, and just obviously going to the naturalization ceremonies are extremely inspiring, each one is unique, but just seeing his dedication to get on that bike or take that walk every day, it's incredible.

Ted Simons: It's great work. Especially teaching kids about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. I'm sure it's a challenge to get those minds around it, but good luck to the bikers and hikers. Good luck to you.

Alysa Ullman: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Alysa Ullman:Executive Director, Founder, Citizenship Counts;

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