Last year Derek and I decided that we would like to participate as host parents to a student through the Rotary Youth Exchange program. We filled out all of the applications, took all of the tests, passed all of the background checks and happily qualified to be part of the program. Our student arrived from Poland at the beginning of August. His name was Janek (Johnny), and he was an absolutely incredible 16 year old kid.
Johnny had traveled through most of Europe, but had never been to the United States. He had some strong pre-conceived notions about Florida. When he first arrived I took him down to a lake near my house to go paddle boarding, and every time the water rippled he screamed alligator! We ended that trip pretty fast. The walk from our house to the bus stop is a few blocks. It is really dark in the morning so we got Johnny a little flashlight that just happened to have a laser pointer attached to it. He loved the laser pointer because he was convinced that if he saw an alligator on the way to the bus stop he could use the laser to distract it while he escaped. He had practiced running our cat Lucky into the wall with a laser pointer a bunch of times so why wouldn’t it work with an alligator.
He also had a list of things he wanted to try that he considered distinctly American. These included things like hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Mountain Dew and outlet stores. What he didn’t expect, and what we were so proud of, was how he embraced the extraordinarily diverse student population at Dr. Phillips High School. He seemed to make friends with everyone instantaneously.
The Rotary Exchange Program has some pretty specific rules that the student must follow or they get sent back home. Without getting into the details, because the details aren’t important, Derek came home from work one day and found evidence that one of the rules had been broken. He waited for me to get home, and we made the call together to the regional program coordinator. Johnny was headed back to Poland a few days later. I think we cried for at least 2 days.
There is an article in the February 2018 edition of The Rotarian Magazine where the magazine is interviewing a fellow Rotarian named Mary Ann Peters. She is the CEO of The (Jimmy) Carter Center. The Carter Center is known for waging peace with the world. In the article Mary Ann talks about the importance of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. “She recalls meeting a Muslim leader in Bangladesh who told her that he could never be anti-American because he had been on an exchange program and lived with a family in Pennsylvania.”
When people ask Derek and I if we would participate in the program again we always answer yes, for a couple of reasons. First, even though our experience with Johnny didn’t go the way we thought it would, the integrity of the program has made a lasting impression on his life in a very positive way. We have communicated with him and his parents since he got back home to Poland. He is in a new school and he has fallen in love with a beautiful girl. Best of all, he is making very good choices.
The second reason we say yes is because you never know, as Mary Anne Peters can attest, how sharing your life for just a few months can change what someone from another country knows to be true about America.