DENVER — Last month, when United began nonstop service between Denver International Airport and Narita International Airport in Japan, news coverage focused on the flight’s economic impact.
But the flight has also had an impact on nine young students from one of Denver’s roughest neighborhoods, members of the Montbello High School drum line who were also part of the city’s official delegation to Japan.
Many of these musicians, whose homes sit just a few miles from the airport itself in far northeast Denver, had never been on an airplane. Some had never left Colorado.
"Every time I think about everything that happened in Japan, I feel at peace," said Jamal Anderson, 19, who at one point dropped out of high school when he found himself without a home, only to find his way back to Montbello and into the tight-knit ranks of the drum line.
"I feel happy. I feel like nothing can bring me down."
Mayor Michael Hancock, who himself visited Japan at the age of 17 as part of the Sister Cities program, wanted to include these young musicians, to allow them an experience like the one that he had.
“I want them to realize what I did, that the world is wide open for them,” Hancock said.
Back in June, FOX31 Denver was the only Colorado television station that went to Japan with the Denver delegation.
On Friday night, the station premiered an exclusive 20-minute documentary by Reporter Eli Stokols and Photojournalist Anne Herbst, taking Colorado viewers along with the drum line on what was truly a trip of a lifetime for the young musicians.
“This is something you never forget,” said drum line member Jordan Jones-Potts as he took in the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
The trip was a mix of sightseeing and performing, as the drum line explored Tokyo by tour bus during the day and then performed at night at a reception celebrating the inaugural flight hosted by Ambassador John Roos at the U.S. Embassy.
After three days in Tokyo, the group took the Shinkasen — Japan’s famous “bullet train” — 200 miles to the west to Takayama, Denver’s sister city, nestled in the lush mountains on the west side of Honshu.
There, the kids spent four days living with host families in their homes, overcoming the language barrier and developing new friendships that could last a lifetime.
“I’m definitely coming back here,” said Jones-Potts. “I love it here.”