Sixteen-year-old Victor Davila had never flown on an airplane before he boarded a flight at John F. Kennedy Airport last December. More than 30 hours later, he landed 6,630 miles from Hunts Point in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.
He still hadn’t gotten where he was going.
The Hunts Point resident was one of 65 students chosen to take part in an expedition to Antarctica. Each winter, students from around the world, including 15 from New York City this year, make the trip with Students On Ice, a non-profit organization based in Canada.
For Geoff Green, the founder and executive director of Students On Ice, the trip is not just an adventure, but an experience that connects youth to the natural world. The organization chooses those it hopes will become tomorrow’s leaders in an effort to educate them about the impact of climate change and humanity’s role in sustaining the environment.
In Ushuaia, the students and a team of scientists, teachers and artists, boarded a ship named after the city. For the next eight days, the Ushuaia would be their floating home and classroom.
As the ship approached Antarctica, a single word came to Victor’s mind – “Incredible!” What first struck him was the gleaming color of his surroundings. “It is so white, it’s hard to distinguish the clouds from the ice,” he said, describing his initial reaction.
Once there, he experienced in person what most people only experience through their TV screens. Victor sat just feet away from penguins; from the deck of the ship he spotted whales and icebergs. And, since it was summer in Antarctica, he even took a dip. The temperature on land was an unusally warm 50 degrees, but the water still felt “like a giant ice cube,” he said.
Victor’s mother, Milagros Davila, had her own expectations. “I was scared,” she admits. “At the beginning I was excited, and then reality sunk in. I made myself sick worrying about him.”
To dampen her fears, she and Victor’s two sisters started reading about the places Victor would be visiting.
Victor was never out of touch, though. He posted accounts of his daily adventures on-line on the Students On Ice blog, which his mother eagerly followed.
If he was feeling really homesick all he needed to do was run to the deck of the Ushuaia and close his eyes. Whenever the ship was approaching a penguin colony, their smell, which Victor likens to sewage, reminded him of being in Baretto Point Park when the wind blew from the NYOFCo fertilizer plant.
Victor was one of five students sponsored by the Harold and Beatrice Snyder Foundation. In order to qualify for the $10,900 scholarship, he had to win the approval of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Congressman Jose Serrano and the Bronx Historical Society, which work together with partner organizations like The Point CDC to select a winner.
For people who have worked with Victor, his achievement seemed like a natural extension of his work with The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program where he has helped restore native plants to North Brother Island and tended the community garden on Bryant Street.
Adam Liebowitz, who is in charge of A.C.T.I.O.N., believes that Victor and his peers are breaking the stereotype that depicts kids from the South Bronx as doomed to fail. Winning the trip “was a big deal,” he says.
When he first applied to Students On Ice, Victor was asked how he would share what he learned with his community. On his return, he and his friend Kendrick Martinez, a fellow A.C.T.I.O.N. member, started Ecoryders, a program that supports alternative transportation methods like skateboarding. With the aid of a $500 grant from the non-profit Powered by Service, participants get hands-on experience learning to stencil skateboards while also focusing on the environmental factors affecting Hunts Point.
Inspired by Victor’s stories about his adventures in the coldest continent, from sliding penguin style on his belly down a snow-covered hillside, to spotting humpback whales as they splashed water with their massive tails, Kendrick has decided to apply to go to Antarctica next year.
Despite his celebrity–“When he came back, he had a tan,” marveled Kendrick, “and everyone kept asking how he managed to get a tan in Antarctica”–Victor remains humble. He calls himself the same “weird kid.”
He does acknowledge that the experience allowed him to make friends from around the world with whom he still keeps in touch via Facebook and phone calls. “The way I interact with people has changed,” he says, explaining that he now feels more comfortable around large groups.
Zane, a friend from Palestine, has promised to send Victor a jar of homemade black honey. In return for the gift, Victor is making Zane a personalized skateboard which he intends to ship off as soon as he is finished stenciling the board.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.