TRAVERSE CITY — Rick Weston stood outside the Cherry Capital Airport terminal and watched as daughter Kourtney retrieved her luggage from the back of the school bus.
As she walked toward him towing a suitcase and clutching a giraffe "pillow pet," Weston stepped in for a bear hug.
"I'm a little nervous," said the Interlochen man, one of several Glen Lake Community Schools parents seeing their teenagers off on a spring break trip to Germany. "She's never been on a train nor an airplane. But she deserves it. She's a good kid, gets good grades."
The two-week trip is part of the school's German Exchange Program that attracts mostly top juniors and seniors. From the time they arrive in the Munster area to the time they return for the long flight home, the students will be immersed in German culture through organized outings and home stays with the German students they and their families hosted in October.
Renewing in spring the friendships they establish in the fall is the most rewarding part of the trip, said coordinator Amy White, a Glen Lake health management and life education teacher.
"It's the relationships that have been built — they just continue to grow," White said, adding that participants on both sides of the Atlantic often continue to visit each other after an exchange. "And that wouldn't happen if we just took them on a spring trip to Europe and stayed in hotels."
This year's trip came close to not happening, thanks to the March winter storm that left thousands in northern Michigan without power. Just hours before leaving Tuesday, Glen Lake juniors had to take the ACT make-up test.
"I was just channeling all my ACT nerves into packing this morning," said Emma Velis, 16, of Empire, who tied a pink bandana around her luggage to help identify it. "But I still forgot something: soap."
Pete Kerby-Miller forgot more than that, so mom Jandy Sprouse met the bus at the airport with a water bottle, headphones and a library book.
Having to take a crucial test while looking forward to the trip ahead was "distracting," said Kerby-Miller, 17, of Maple City. "We all just wanted to get it over with, and get out of here. Our brains were already in Germany."
The students planned to spend their first weekend visiting with their host families and taking in the local sights. They'll also attend English classes with their host students at Anne Frank Gesamtschule in Havixbeck, said White, whose son, Spencer, 16, is along on the trip.
"I think he's going to be riding on the back of a scooter to school every day," she said.
The itinerary also includes sight-seeing in Berlin, where the students will take a boat trip on the River Spree, visit a gallery and meet with a politician at the German Bundestag, the national parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany.
"That will be the big deal, because it's a huge city," White said. "From what I understand, this is avant-garde. It's big. It's 'New York.' And we'll be staying in a youth hostel, which most kids only know about from some horror film."
Kerby-Miller will be staying in the town of Senden with Pascal Falk, whom he and his family hosted last fall. He said the Falks have hinted at a special surprise.
"They're sailers and we'll probably sail to the Netherlands for the weekend," he said.
In exchange, Kerby-Miller was bringing the Falks a Hollister logo sweater, a woven jacquard towel featuring artist Glenn Wolff's Michigan images, and a wooden bowl painted with words that evoke iconic Leelanau County spots.
Kourtney Weston, of Maple City, planned to give her host family in Nottuln a book of photos of Leelanau County and the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Rice Krispies Treats.
"She loved them when she had them here," said Weston, 17, referring to host student Franziska Daams.
Glen Lake's German Exchange Program began in 1999, when it became a sister school with Anne Frank Gesamtschul.
More than 100 students have been involved since, said Patrick Neimisto, a retired Glen Lake music teacher who has helped coordinate the trips for years.
"You have no idea what the world is unless you see it," said Neimisto, whose three children have all traveled to Germany with the program and whose oldest son still keeps in touch with his original host family. "You can't read about it."
As the students prepared to enter the security area, they posed for a group photo. Then they turned and walked toward spring break.
"Take care of my baby!" Rick Weston called out to Neimisto.