Young Hollidaysburg native travels the world

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Evan McCaffrey has lived an adventurous life.

He photographed geysers in the Golden Circle of Iceland and a Viking ship sculpture on the shores of Reykjavik. He and his girlfriend traveled the Sahara on a camel. He “celebrated” the Twelfth of July in Belfast, Northern Ireland. And, he scaled the Atlas Mountains in Morocco with the help of a Berber, experiencing firsthand a culture and life that hadn’t changed for a millennium.

And, that was just this year.

At 26 and just seven years after graduating from Hollidaysburg Area High School, McCaffrey is on a mission. He is a multi-media producer with an international travel company based in Dublin. But his goal in life is to tell the stories of people who have no voice.

“I love the traveling work, but I’m just selling holidays to people,” McCaffrey said while home for a visit with family and friends earlier this month.

His mother, Molly, says she thinks her son wants to “change the world” and she is fine with that.

Telling stories

“I just want to tell people’s stories that don’t get told,” he said.

You can read those stories on his new website called TodaysHuman .com, one of which tells a harrowing account of a Syrian refugee and his family on the road from war-torn Damascus. The man named Abdul, his then 1-year-old daughter, and wife almost died in a Turkish forest when their paid smuggler abandoned them, but they made their way to Bulgaria, where today they languish in a refugee camp near Sofia.

“When I interviewed Abdul, the first thing I noticed was his age,” McCaffrey wrote. “At 26 years of age, the most hardship I’ve had in life is having to sleep on friends’ floors for a time period while I looked for work. But at the same age, Abdul has been detained by government forces, fled a war-zone with his family, almost died fleeing, and now struggles to find work and support his family due to his immigration status.”

You’ll learn from another of McCaffrey’s stories that trouble remains in Northern Ireland, even though the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 supposedly ended “The Troubles” between Protestants – who generally view themselves as loyal to the British government – and Catholics – who have sought a united Ireland free of British rule.

McCaffrey headed up the coast of the Irish Sea to Belfast this summer to witness the July 12th parades and bonfires that celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690, the beginning of Protestant rule in Northern Ireland.

“I tried to go in with an open mind, viewing it as a cultural event,” he said. “But they’re saying ‘Kill the Catholics’ and they’re burning the pope in effigy. And, there I am having grown up Catholic.”

In his story, McCaffrey writes how he understands how the huge bonfires are considered celebrations of a community’s identity.

“But, as an outsider, I can only look at the situation for what it is,” he wrote. “It is a cultural celebration, but it is one that celebrates hate.”

Lessons learned

McCaffrey also interviewed a native Parisian who attended the Unity Rally after the mass shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine. He was assaulted while covering a water protest in Ireland. And, he learned a valuable lesson at the very first protest he showed up to photograph.

That demonstration was the Occupy Movement that had moved from Wall Street to Washington, D.C., while McCaffrey was a student at West Virginia University. He had gotten bored and drove the three hours over to the capital.

“One thing I’ve learned from my first protest is to always bring a face-mask or, even more, a gas mask, because frankly pepper spray sucks,” he wrote.

McCaffrey had gotten sprayed while attempting to chase and photograph a crowd that was rushing the National Air and Space Museum.

After he recovered – thanks to medics who knew to pour milk in the eyes of pepper-spray victims – he kept shooting photographs.

“I’m not going to lie, I was excited,” he wrote in his first-person story. “Moments like this were the reason I had gotten into journalism. Don’t get me wrong; I do care about my fellow human beings and hope that I can make a difference as a journalist, but the adrenaline rush from these moments is something I enjoy.”

Making a difference

One of his high school teachers thinks McCaffery will make a difference in the world.

“Maybe a small difference, but he’ll make a difference,” said Russell Stiles, drama teacher and fine arts chairman at Hollidaysburg Area High, from which McCaffery graduated in 2008.

For the last 25 years, Stiles has taken a group of HAHS students to different areas of Europe and Asia. He took McCaffery’s group to Ireland for two weeks, and McCaffery remains grateful today.

“That trip was neat,” Stiles said. He recalled sitting in a pub having a conversation with McCaffery and he could see the teenager change his view of himself from one of small-town resident to that of world citizen.

“He was a perfect traveler,” Stiles said. “He was receptive to the culture, trying different things. He was up for anything.

“I love those teachable moments when you have a 17-year-old kid and you’re opening these doors for them and they’re willing to walk through those doors. It’s really phenomenal,” Stiles said. “Some don’t want to walk through them. Maybe they don’t want to be a world traveler. That’s good to find that out about yourself. I see so many kids wandering through college, dropping out, changing schools.”

McCaffery didn’t. After graduating high school, he went to West Virginia University where he majored in visual journalism. While in college, he worked on community development projects in Appalachia and, later spent six months in Stellenbosch, South Africa, studying development and working in a local school. He graduated from WVU in 2012 with his bachelor’s degree.

Close encounters

McCaffery moved out west for a time, working outdoor hunting shows in Colorado and other western states, encountering a mountain lion on his first day in the Montana wild.

But the lure of the Emerald Isle beckoned, thanks to that high school trip with Stiles that McCaffery had to work at odd jobs to pay for, along with some innate desire to travel abroad.

“When he was 4, he said he wanted to go to another country,” Molly said. “We took the family to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side and he was like, Wow.”

McCaffery’s grandfather served on a Merchant Marine ship during World War II and was always sharing his stories of Europe with his grandson. His grandmother kept him supplied with subscriptions to National Geographic magazine. He was raised by two HAHS teachers, although Molly retired earlier this year. His father, Tom, is a “real news hound,” Molly said.

“They are always discussing what is going on in the world,” she said.

Staying abroad

With bachelor’s degree in hand, McCaffery applied for and was accepted into a one-year master’s program in multi-media at Dublin City University, leaving in September 2013. A year later, he searched for opportunities to stay in Ireland. They weren’t forthcoming, and he began sleeping on the floor of friends’ houses so he could stay a while longer. A week before he was to leave for Hollidaysburg, an internship at Travel Department in Dublin came through.

“I did not want to leave,” he said.

That internship led to his current job this year with the company where he produces videos and photos for the marketing team to sell holidays to people from Ireland and the United Kingdom to more than 80 destinations around the world. Last year, he traveled to Mallorca Island off the coast of Spain, Lake Garda in Italy, and Romania, followed by this year’s exotic destinations.

McCaffery said the trip to Morocco has been the “coolest place” so far because he was able to travel with his girlfriend, Melina Viteri from Barcelona, and see the mountains from a native’s point of view. The most beautiful, perhaps, was when the two were lying in the Sahara at night and looking at the stars dotting the sky from one horizon to another. He also brought Viteri home with him on his most recent visit to Hollidaysburg to meet the parents. The two met in Dublin.

McCaffery’s next assignment with the travel company includes Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia – if he can get his visa. U.S. sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine ordeal have made it difficult for him to travel there, but he says his U.S. passport lets him easily travel just about anywhere else.

His work with Travel Department pays him to travel to exotic locales and it gives him valuable experience he hopes to use to get funding for his journalism work, he said.

“It’s hard to get funding,” McCaffery said. “I tried to go to Kurdish areas twice, but I couldn’t get the funding.”

Frugal living

He’s pretty frugal in Ireland, and Stiles said one of the things he loves most about his former student is that McCaffery is not materialistic at all.

“He doesn’t need to have a brand new Porsche,” Stiles said. “An old Vespa scooter serves him just fine.”

Molly doesn’t dwell on any particular danger for her son. They speak regularly via Skype, although while in South Africa, he had failed to mention to her that he would be away from the university for a week. When she called him, a weird connection put a stranger speaking a foreign language on the phone. Panicked at first, she was able to track him down through the university within an hour.

“I’m excited for him, but we’re not surprised,” Molly said. “He was always interested in what was going on in the world.”

Behind Molly in the family’s living room, the television was tuned in to CNN.

Embracing danger

If there’s a male Christiane Amanpour, it’s him,” Stiles said, comparing McCaffery with the legendary CNN international journalist and television host. “Yes, it can be dangerous. I think that’s part of Evan, too. He’ll embrace the danger as he tries to bring truth to the world.”

Getting out the truth can be frustrating, logistics aside, McCaffery said.

So many “people are disconnected,” he said. “They hate people because those people are refugees or Muslim, but they have never talked with a refugee or a Muslim. I want to help make that connection. I know a lot of people won’t read (the stories); they’re not going to change their mind. But I’ll keep trying.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.