Growing experiences

During winters, when the cold is quite bitter in Wisconsin, Liza Lightfoot escorts students on mission-focused travel excursions to her home country of South Africa, giving young people an opportunity to make an indelible impression in urban and rural impoverished communities.

Travel Learners LLC is the business, and Lightfoot helps plan entire trips, or the pieces-parts like accommodations, transport, outings and guidance on where to go (and where not to go.)

The landscape-related work Lightfoot organizes includes building food gardens and playgrounds with student groups from University of Wisconsin and California Polytechnic University. “We do projects that support vulnerable children in South Africa,” Lightfoot says of the business she started in 2007.

“I’m at this stage in my life where I’ve been doing my [landscape] business for a long time, and suddenly I realized I needed other sources of stimulation in my life, so this has been a great project for that,” Lightfoot says.

Group size is generally 10 to 12 students, and trips last 10 days to three weeks depending on the project. Lightfoot leads groups studying landscape architecture as she did, and global health students focused on agro-ecology. “I love being part of the student groups. I learn a lot from them and it has been a lot of fun,” Lightfoot says.

Travel Learners LLC organizes trips primarily to Johannesburg – a neighborhood called Alexander Township – and the Eastern Cape region, a rural province of South Africa.

Last year, one student group won an American Society of Landscape Architects award for a playground project they designed and built in Johannesburg during a Travel Learners excursion.

Meanwhile, at her home business, Lightfoot allows employees to really take the reins while she manages Travel Learners in the cold season. The arrangement has been beneficial for Lightfoot, fulfilling her desire to change directions a bit, and for her core business Avant Gardening and Landscaping, which has become even more sustainable.

“I think it’s good for people to run the business while I’m gone and make decisions on their own without me,” she says. “If it was all me and all about me, the business would not be where we are today.”

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