When Kirsten Gaither steps out her front door every morning, she realizes the world holds much more than the familiar comforts of her Liberty Heights neighborhood.

Traveling with her AAU and Digital Harbor basketball teams has taken the teenager around the United States, but Gaither's horizons are even wider.

"In school, why am I learning about other countries? Why am I learning about history in other countries? It's not just the United States on the planet," she said. "There are more things going on in the world, and it obviously affects us here, because we're at war over in Iraq. It's not like we're just on this island by ourselves and things go on in other countries that don't affect us, because they do."

Starting today, Gaither will learn more about the world first hand when she travels to Israel with the Elijah Cummings Youth Program. As part of a two-year fellowship, she and 12 other rising high school seniors from Rep. Cummings' 7th District will spend three weeks in Haifa at Yemin Orde Youth Village, getting to know Jewish students from around the world.

Gaither, 17, can't wait to meet the Yemin Orde teenagers, mostly refugees and immigrants from nations such as Russia, Ethiopia and Brazil. Many have been through traumatic experiences, and the Village offers a stable atmosphere to transition into adulthood. She's eager to hear their stories and learn the world perspectives of youngsters whose lives have been so different from hers.

"I think with diversity comes knowledge," Gaither said. "You can't just know what you see every day. The world is bigger than Baltimore City and there's so much more I could learn. That's what I want to do. I want to soak up as much knowledge as possible."

Gaither's step-father Patrick McDonald, also the Rams' girls basketball coach, said her global interests developed through reading, curiosity and never being afraid to question anything.

Digital Harbor guidance counselor Valerie Allen knew Gaither would be a perfect fit for the program, which aims to foster better relations between the African-American and Jewish communities.

"She's one to watch, because she has so much to offer," Allen said. "I know she's a world changer. She has the compassion, she has that I-care quality and she has the utmost respect for humanity. She will offer her commitment and talent and time to make the change, but she doesn't have to be the one to be up on a pedestal and have all the accolades. That's not her purpose. Her purpose is to make a difference."

Gaither laughed as she reflected on the boardroom surroundings of her interview with Rep. Cummings as something akin to "Celebrity Apprentice." She sat at one end of a long table. The congressman sat at the far end.

"It could kind of be intimidating to some people," Gaither said, "but it helps you out being an athlete when you're put in positions like that. Basketball is a microcosm of life, so I'm better equipped because in the heat of the game, it doesn't matter who's on the other end. You still have to show up to play."

Jason Daniel Fair, director of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, said many of their fellows are athletes, because a sports background fosters qualities they're looking for in student ambassadors — team play, discipline and dedication, and being comfortable when they're pushed.

"When we see from an applicant that they have been going to practice every day, that they have lost a game and that they got right back up and kept at it, that speaks very highly to a certain quality of character," Fair said.

When Gaither, who has a 3.9 GPA and plans to become sports psychologist, returns from the trip, she will give speeches about her experience. She has spent the past year preparing through workshops and other activities, including working with Habitat for Humanity, mentoring students at the KIPP Ujima Village Academy and sailing in the Inner Harbor.

Hearing the stories of previous fellows has inspired her.

"At orientation, the group that just came back from Israel, they tell you all about their experience," Gaither said. "I already was excited, but once I heard the kids give their testimony about how it changed them whether it was spiritually or just them becoming better leaders and just enjoying their experience, that's what really got me excited about going."

There is one thing she's not looking forward to — no basketball. Expected to be the Rams' starting point guard in the winter, she missed nearly all of last season with a broken foot, and the trip to Israel will cut short her AAU season with Adidas Team Maryland.

"I think I'm going to go through withdrawal, because it's three weeks and I'm used to basketball every day," she said with a laugh. "I'm taking my ball, though. Maybe there will be a little time to play or I can teach them a little basketball."

Fair said he doubts there will be much time for basketball, but that Gaither won't have trouble staying in shape with all the hiking and mountain climbing planned, as well as swimming in the Dead Sea and playing a little soccer.

Also scheduled to tour historic sites around Jerusalem, Gaither said she's most eager for the spiritual experience, being in a land so holy to Christianity, Judaism and Islam and walking the same ground as Jesus.

"I think I'm going to mature as a person, mentally and spiritually, just grow up, because a lot of times when you see people who have less than you, you start to notice the little things you might have taken for granted," Gaither said. "I think it's going to make me a better person."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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