I started writing this post weeks before I learned of yesterday’s attacks in Paris and Beirut. My heart aches for the victims and their families. I am writing this month of posts because when I was sixteen, I had the chance to participate in an international youth exchange. This exchange, sponsored by Rotary International, taught me the importance of cross-cultural and international understanding. Now, more than ever, we need more of this international dialogue. I am sticking with my intended post because today, while a day of mourning for many, is also a day of celebration for those I love. Congratulations Simon and Emma – may you have years of happiness together.
When I was preparing to be an exchange student, one of my main concerns was related to the families which would host me. I did not need to worry. I was fortunate to be placed with four wonderful families. I developed close bonds with all of them and have stayed in touch over the years
My first email after accepting the invitation to return to Australia was to Malcolm and Rae. They were my fourth host parents, the final family to host me at the end of my year. Would they be willing to help me find accommodation once again? The reply came quickly.
We are doing some renovations and think you’ll be able to stay here. Would you be comfortable with that?
Would I be comfortable with that?! Of course I jumped at the chance to spend time with “family.” Who wants to stay in a hotel when you can stay at a place you once called home for a brief time?
Many of my memories from the time I spent living in the home on Bonnet Hill involve boys and golf. Malcolm and Rae have two sons, Martyn and Simon. This meant I was an “older sister” AND I had younger “brothers” for the first time in my life. Martyn and Simon were curious about America, picking on my accent and the words I used. Along with Martyn’s friend David, they would try to pronounce “New York” as I did, then would tell me to say “alum-in-um” instead of “alu-min-i-um,” which usually resulted in all of us giggling. The boys took to calling me “DiNoto,” putting extra emphasis on the second syllable as I often did when I corrected people who said “Di-NAH-to” rather than “Di-NO-to.”
One morning I came out of my bedroom and almost stepped on a golf ball which was rolling down the hallway. I stared quizzically at Simon, standing at the other end of the hall with a putter in his hands, who proceeded to explain how the boys had created a putting course throughout the house and the lawn. Would I mind announcing myself prior to coming out of my room from now on so he would know not to putt? I probably rolled my eyes and told him to get out of the way so I could go to the bathroom. In addition to watching for golf balls rolling down the hall, the new course also meant I had to sit at a different spot at the dining room table to write in my journal so my chair did not obstruct the path of the green. I tolerated the golf until one morning in April. My bedroom door flew open at 6:30 AM on a Saturday as Simon and Martyn both came running in. “Denise – get up! The U.S. Open is on TV!”
I rolled over, assuring them both I did not have the slightest interest in anything on TV, reminding them it was Saturday and we did not need to be up this early. “But, it’s live from America! Don’t you want to see it?” I yawned, and agreed to get up in an hour if they didn’t make me watch golf. I don’t remember if I actually did watch golf with Martyn and Simon that morning, but I do remember Simon’s insistence that I should care about it since, like me, the broadcast was from the United States.
Malcolm, Rae, Martyn and Simon welcomed their home and hearts to me twenty five years ago, and I remain grateful to be an adopted member of their family. We have stayed in contact since my exchange year. In 2010, I served as tour guide when Malcolm and Rae came to the United States as part of a trip around the world. They stayed with my sister Sandy, also a Rotarian like Malcolm and me, and each day we explored the many areas I call home. I brought them to Bainbridge, my hometown, to meet my parents. My mother especially wanted to be able to thank Rae for taking care of “her baby.”
Without Malcolm and Rae, my trip in March would not have been the wonderful experience Kelly and I were able to enjoy. Every time I had a problem or question before I even arrived, Malcolm and Rae had answers. Malcolm found the Invacare wheelchair charger I used during my stay, sparing me from frying the electronics in my power chair. Rae had extra chargers we were able to use for our electronic devices, which was wonderful since I’d forgotten my adapter. Malcolm coordinated the accessible van rental, a gift from Kingston Rotary, which enabled us to move freely around the state for two weeks. Malcolm and Rae hosted a barbecue in their home, and allowed visitors to pop over for coffee, chats and meals throughout my stay. They both took amazing photos, which they shared with me and gave me permission to use on my blog.
One of the highlights of my visit this year was our family dinner. The family has grown in twenty five years. Martyn is now married to Sonia and they have two adorable children. At the time of our visit, Simon and Emma were engaged. Today is their wedding and I know you will join me in wishing them years of love and happiness together.
As we sat around the table in March, laughing and telling stories, I was reminded of something I often say when I speak about my exchange year. Home is not just the place where you were raised. Home is wherever you find love, support and a base from which to thrive.
Malcolm, Rae, Martyn and Simon – thank you for making your home a place where I could find love and acceptance. I am blessed to have “family” willing to adapt to my needs and accept me for who I am. I appreciate your assistance in making my dream visit a reality. Malcolm and Rae, I am honored you were present at the conference to hear me publicly thank the men and women who made such a difference in my life. The two of you have changed my world in so many ways and I will always be grateful for the love and friendship you have given willingly for the past twenty five years. Martyn and Simon – you were the best introduction to younger brothers any girl could ask for. You have brought your parents joy and I know they are proud of you (as am I) and all you have become. I am with you today in spirit as you gather in celebration. “DiNoto” sends her love!