A Helias High School student is on a whirlwind journey that so far has taken her from being nominated as a "senator" to shaking hands with the president in the Rose Garden of the White House — and on Monday, she will begin another journey with a year studying in Europe.
Riley Wibberg, of Osage City, is a senior at Helias, although it's a bit more complicated than that. Wibberg will be on her way Monday to Amboise, France, for a year as a Rotary high school exchange student. Amboise is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the heart of Paris.
She's known she was going to France since November, but her international story had some unexpected chapters added to it this summer when she was accepted to attend Girls State as an alternate, then successfully ran to go to Girls Nation in Washington, D.C.
Of the 700-800 girls in the state mock government program, she said, she was one of 24 young women elected as a "senator." She was then one of two senators from Missouri selected to join 98 more as delegates at Girls Nation, a six-day conference that has the girls elect party officials, debate bills, visit sites in the capital and meet with leaders — enter shaking hands with President Donald Trump, meeting Sen. Claire McCaskill and senior staff of Sen. Roy Blunt's office, as well as placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Her selection to Girls Nation from eight finalists was based upon a thorough political interrogation of her proposed bill and an impromptu speech in front of an audience of approximately 1,000 people.
The mock federal bill she brought to Girls Nation proposed providing all honorably discharged veterans free admission to national parks. "While there's not a huge financial burden, there's a huge sentimental gain from it," she said.
"My kind of slogan for that was 'you get to see what you serve.' It's a proven fact that by going out into nature, veterans who have PTSD and other illnesses that have stemmed from their service and the wars, they're often soothed by being able to see their country and go out in nature and experience that."
She has a lot of family who have served in the U.S. Army or Navy, including her father, Bill, in the Navy. She said she and her family go to national parks, too: "They're both tied in very close to me, and I wanted a way to bring both of those together."
She said wounded veterans are already allowed free admission into national parks, but "you shouldn't have to get wounded to be rewarded."
Her father's experience of being away from home in the Navy gave him some wisdom to offer her about not being afraid to go where life takes her, even thousands of miles away.
"Basically, what he told me is anything that's out of sight should be out of mind. If it's not there in that moment, it doesn't exist," she said.
Her week in D.C. showed her what she could accomplish on her own, even with precious little time left in America for a while.
She doesn't speak much French, but that's something she'll learn during her stay with three different host families in the town that's the final resting place of Leonardo Da Vinci and the childhood home of Charles VIII, according to Lonely Planet.
She realizes she'll miss a lot by being gone her senior year: dances, football games, pep rallies, prom, her graduation ceremony, holidays with her family, her older and close brother. Having transferred from Jefferson City Public Schools to Helias for her junior year, though, she said she doesn't necessarily feel a "solidified attachment" to her school.
"Expanding my horizons and seeing more of the world, and kind of realizing how small I am in the grand scheme of things, is a little cooler than walking across a stage."
She remembers as a young girl at her grandma's house in Osage City, trains would travel past on the nearby tracks. "We'd play this game where it was like, 'where are the trains going?' Of course, I was little, so I'd say all these outlandish places. And I made a promise to myself that I'm going to get myself out of little Jeff City," as much as she loves it. "This Rotary (experience) is my way of doing that."
She doesn't know where she'll attend college when she returns in June or July — depending on Rotary-guided travel arrangements around Europe — but she wants to major in finance and minor in French.
"If I'm hitting the ground running now, I'm just going to keep going," she said of not taking a break between being abroad and starting college.