The Valley Dispatch

CHELMSFORD -- Not many people will get to see in their lifetimes the rare species of the Galapagos Islands that led Charles Darwin to craft his theory on evolution.

This summer, three local middle-school students will get to do just that, along with touring the old streets of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, hiking through a jungle and soaking in natural hot springs.

Nick Reinhold and Aaron Schaefer, both in eighth grade at Chelmsford's McCarthy Middle School, and Zarek Merza, in seventh grade at Dracut Junior High School, will make a trip this July to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with the People to People Ambassador Programs.

The program was started in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a way to encourage citizens to travel to other countries and meet other people. Over the years, People to People student travelers have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, met with Queen Elizabeth II in England, and attended President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Reinhold and Merza also went on a trip to Japan last summer, seeing Tokyo and Kyoto and climbing Mount Fuji.

"I was excited to see the culture of Japan with my own eyes," Reinhold said. "My mom was more nervous than I was."

The language barrier was not as much an issue in Japan as he would have thought, Reinhold said. For South America, the students are taking a mini course in Spanish. Reinhold and Schaefer, who are a year older than Merza, have just begun taking Spanish in school.

Merza is still plenty prepared for the trip, particularly to Galapagos. He read about Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise who was deemed the last known member of his subspecies shortly before he died in 2012 at a century old.

Merza said he is looking forward to the islands and the rainforest in Ecuador the most. Reinhold and Schaefer said the same.

"Ecuador sounds really fun, so I thought I'd do it," said Schaefer, who will be making his first People to People trip. He's friends with Reinhold and heard about how much fun his neighbor had last summer.

The three local students will make up almost half the Massachusetts contingent, which will be going as part of a group of about 35 to 40 students to South America. They were nominated by their teachers and interviewed by Chelmsford resident Betsy Chipman, a delegation leader.

Tuition for the program ranges from $4,500-$7,999, depending on length, destination, and itinerary, with scholarships available. Students in fifth grade through college are eligible.

Follow Grant Welker on Twitter and Tout @SunGrantWelker.