Rotary exchange students learn skills for life

POULSBO — More than 90 Rotary clubs and Rotary exchange students from 23 countries gathered in Poulsbo May 4-6 for the Rotary District Leadership Program.

Participating were Rotary clubs from Vancouver, B.C., to Aberdeen.

Eric Neves, a 16-year old from Brazil, has been living in Canada as an exchange student for nearly a year, and said he is loving the experience.

“This is an experience I will never forget,” he said. “For most of us, it’s the first time going away from our comfort zones, but from the exchange program I feel more independent.”

Neves attends every Rotary meeting with his club, and assists in service projects and fundraisers. He lives with host families and attends school.

Inguild Blakar is from Norway. She agreed with Neves, but added, “For us as individuals, it’s a maturing experience to gain a broader knowledge of the world.”

Paul Geneau, a member of Rotary for more than 25 years, said the beauty of the exchange experience is the relationship building.

Dora Veh is from Hungary. As she was pulling weeds at Poulsbo’s Fish Park, she reminisced on her prom the previous week. She said she found a great dress and it was not too expensive, but added, “American kids dance weird.”

“I think they dance too sexual,” she said.

Veh said there are many differences between her home country and America, but the experience was similar for her other Rotary exchange friends.

“This is the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” she said of the East Bremerton Rotary Club she is a part of.

“These people are my aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers. I feel like I’m apart of their family. I know I will be in Rotary for the rest of my life,” she said.

The 17-year-old has attended Olympic High School for the past year. And while she is looking forward to going back home to see her family,

she said she will encourage other students from Hungary to embark on the Rotary exchange experience. As she recalls her experiences from the past year, involving a week-long trip of service in Mexico, Veh said she is left with high aspirations for her future.

“I want to be president of my Interact Club, and I want to help,” she said. “Now I consider myself as an adult. I can do anything I want to do.”

Eric Nordlie works with the City of Poulsbo as the maintenance and volunteer coordinator for Fish Park. He supervised the students’ service project there May 5. Their job of clearing out brush to make way for native plants is important to the natural environment.

“This area used to be full of brush, but we’re trying to clear it out to give some space for the plants,” he said as he pointed to the maple trees thriving in the distance. As a fan of clean lines and borders, he enlisted the Rotary exchange students to help clean up the areas he will landscape with rock borders.

As Nordlie described the change of scenery from living in Colorado to the Pacific Northwest, he said the opportunity to just “pull over and walk into the woods” is a priceless experience.

“It’s important we keep it that way,” he said.

Sarah Bryant, Rotary exchange country officer for Asia and Africa, was walking the trails in Fish Park to catch up with the team.

“The whole point is to build a broader community,” she said. “This is a small world, that’s the point, is to bring us all together.”

Back at the program at Clearwater resort, exchange students and Rotary officers mingled before their lunch events.

Ailsa Bitha of Indonesia performed a morning dance for the group as part of the breakfast event.

“I move my body in a traditional way,” she said. She said she surprised herself to be able to perform for so many people.

“The first time I’m so shy and now I feel like I have to start talking and use my English to make friends,” she said. “That helped me to get involved at school.”

Bitha even performed in her school musical by singing and dancing.

“I realized I was stuck in the box before, but now I know it’s not impossible for me to do anything,” she said. “The world is so big, but you can try a different life and see how different the world can be.”

Bitha brought with her 100 pins from Indonesia. On her blue blazer were memento pins from all over the world.

Gabriel Baquero is from Brazil. As he hugged Bitha, he said, “We are all brothers and sisters.”

“I never thought I would meet so many different people from so many different countries,” he said. “These long friendships will last forever. These people are my family now. These memories I’ll never forget my entire life.”

As the exchange students reminisced on their year abroad, their conversation diverted to larger world issues. While topics such as America’s presidential election choices were highlighted, the students agreed that there were bigger subjects to discuss.

“In a war, everyone loses,” Baquero said. “But compassion, empathy and peace, those are important. In a way everyone is like you. Everyone wants someone to love them.”

— Sophie Bonomi is a reporter with the Kitsap News Group. Contact her at sbonomi@soundpublishing.com.