Photograph by Jillian Mitchell
11 Individuals, One Inspiring Journey
Home is where the heart is. For the Inion family (www.traveldeepandwide.com), that means everywhere. When Brent and Stacey-Jean set out from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a family road trip in 2007, their goal was to explore the United States. As their itinerary grew to include Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Belize, and Mexico, so did their number. There are now 11 Inions, including four kids adopted from China, India, Egypt, and South Korea. Their ninth child, Jeriah, was born with Down syndrome and a heart condition. Four of their other children have special needs as well, with conditions that include blindness, quadriplegia, and cerebral palsy.
Like any big family, they have experienced a lot and aren’t often surprised by much, but their multiyear journey has astonished even them. Instead of presenting obstacles, the Inion kids’ needs have created opportunities. “We’ve been invited to speak in villages and schools where handicapped children are still seen as a curse or shamed,” says Brent. “We encourage understanding. The best thing we have ever done for our children is to unshackle them from the concept that they must live according to a rigid routine.”
Active homeschoolers, the Inions, who belong to an Amish-Mennonite group, say that travel is both education and therapy. “A day will come when travel around the world will not be possible for some of our children,” says Stacey-Jean. “But right now they are thriving in the warm sunshine, learning through life experiences.” Brent’s advice for traveling families is straightforward: “Don’t wait. Travel will open the world to your children.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: What’s your greatest travel discovery?
Brent Inion: We’ve learned that the view is worth the ache. Enduring a grueling horseback ride and hike up 11,000 feet in Mexico was worth seeing our 12-year-old dance amid thousands of migrating monarchs. Witnessing Jeremiah's two-year-old wide-eyed wonder over a troop of howler monkeys in Belize was worth the early morning jungle hike swatting our way through a cloud of mosquitoes. Hearing our children’s excited gasp the first time we snorkeled with endangered sea turtles in Akumal, Mexico, was worth the sunburn and sandy RV. The title of our Facebook page—Travel Deep and Wide—best sums up what we have learned. We have learned that our world is both large and small. We will not cover every square inch of this wide planet, but we are learning that delving deep matters more than how far we go.
NGT: What drives your journeys?
BI: As global citizens and followers of the Bible, we believe it is our duty and privilege to make a lasting difference with our lives. We spent our early married and young parenting years among the Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When we set out to travel, we left a part of our heart with them and they gave a part of their heart to us. As we have traveled throughout Mexico and Belize, a part of our mission has been to assist people within these groups as they interact with the wider Christian and non-Christian community. Our goal is to help with humanitarian aid, encouraging families spiritually while preserving the best of their culture.
NGT: Are you actively engaged in missionary work?
BI: Yes and no. We are not with a formal mission agency. We are too free-spirited for that. We can’t be tied down to one group. However, the very purpose of our lives is to serve. We actively seek out opportunities to make a difference. We find more opportunity among the poor; in Mexico and Belize, for example, we have a huge advantage living in a two-thirds world setting.
NGT: How do you try to make a difference?
BI: We have participated as a whole family in building homes for families in need, distributing clothing, and [distributing] school supplies. We distribute protein and vitamins to women and children in need. Our children often purchase loaves of bread and meat to make sandwiches to feed the hungry. Those are just a few tangible ways we can be authentic in our faith.
Having adopted four special-needs children (and now having a son born to us with special needs) we have a unique ability to serve that population throughout our travels. We speak with families and communities to encourage understanding and value of the beautiful [special-needs] people from whom we have so much to learn. When possible, we bring in special-needs equipment and encourage local churches to help such families.
NGT: What do your kids gain from travel?
BI: Travel allows our children to gain a global education that cannot be gained in any other way. Traveling together builds relationships and a family bond through triumph and trial. Travel breaks through our naivety and challenges our worldviews. We are intentional about seizing every possible opportunity to help our children become global citizens, teaching them to learn from and respect our planet Earth. We hope they will respect and value all people groups and realize that we all have something to learn and we all have something to give.
NGT: Tell us about traveling with special-needs kids.
BI: Four of our nine children are our adopted treasures, each one labeled with a profound special need. We looked into the eyes of our quadriplegic son and realized that the day would come when he would be too heavy to backpack up pyramids and over mountains. We looked at our children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and profound autism and we realized that sensory appreciation could be felt on the back of a horse, smelled in the cool water of the sea, and heard in the guttural screams of the howler monkeys. Varying their tastes of foods and other cultural experiences would provide a depth of therapy that a sterile classroom could never provide.
Instead of allowing labels to put our children in a box, we decided to break free of the system and give them the world. We realize that our time to do this is limited. There will come a day when a travel lifestyle will not be possible for some of our children. For now, they are thriving in the warm sunshine, excellent medical care, and a Latin American culture known for embracing children.
NGT: How do you support your travels?
BI: Great question and one that we are often asked. We fund our travel the same way anyone supports any lifestyle choice: we make travel our priority. We do not own a house or a new vehicle and we have stopped collecting stuff. We sold most everything of value and used that to fund our travel. One of the skills we learned from the Amish is how to quilt—to take small patches and, over time, those little squares add up to a lasting blanket. We think of ourselves as traveling quilters—making a little here and there is enough patchwork income to keep us all trekking.
Stacey-Jean has a bit of travel photography she sells on occasion. Last year in Belize, we raised heifers and were able to sell a couple when they were ready to calve. In the U.S. we worked as volunteer park rangers in exchange for an RV lot and utilities. The children learned more about being good stewards of our planet, helped protect baby sea turtles, and taught young children about conservation
We are currently volunteering at a local mission in exchange for lodging, utilities, and meals. We do not need a lot to be content and yet we live an amazing lifestyle because the basics in Central America are so inexpensive compared to the U.S.
NGT: Are traveling kids good teachers?
BI: Our five-year-old little girl saw a dark-skinned Belizean and a blonde European sitting together chatting. They both wore baseball caps, so she asked, “Are they twins?” It has been said that children are colorblind. They are also culturally blind. They do not have preconceived ideas and are open to learning. This same daughter gave away her favorite doll to a little girl on the street because, in her words, “I have so much and she has so little.” Giving is a way of life for our children. However, when we travel, we gain more than we could ever give. Seeing the world through our children's eyes is the greatest gift we can ever have.
NGT: What’s next for the Inion Eleven?
BI: We plan to continue our overland RV trek to Argentina. We are slow travelers by design. At the end of the day, we are more concerned with what we have learned and what difference we are able to make than the amount of miles we cover.
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