I have to close my 30 Days of Thanks by offering sincere gratitude to the people who made it possible for me to participate in Rotary Youth Exchange – the wonderful men and women of the Rotary Club of Kingston, Tasmania, Australia. They are the ones who changed my life twenty-five years ago, in ways I could never imagine. Most of what I am sharing today in this post they have already heard, as it was the majority of my speech when I visited the club in March. It bears repeating here as this month of thankfulness draws to a close. All photos in this post are used with kind permission of Paul Jack and Malcolm Wells, both Kingston Rotarians.
In 1990, when I applied to become an exchange student, I knew being accepted by my sponsor Rotary club and district was just the half the battle. I would need to be accepted by a host district and club as well. My sponsor district hoped to send me to an English speaking country so I could make my needs known without a language barrier. I did not care where I was sent. As long as I was leaving Bainbridge, New York I was happy. They could have sent me to live in Ohio for a year and I would have been glad for the change of scenery.
The Kingston club had already accepted an exchange student, Hanna from Finland. But, then-District Governor John Thorne asked Kingston Rotarian Gerry Verdouw if the Kingston club would consider taking on another student, one with a disability. Gerry approached the club about accepting me, agreeing to serve as a host family if the club felt it was something they could do.
Kingston Rotary did not need to offer me a chance, but they did. They found four additional host families, and took on the financial responsibility of another exchange student. Their commitment afforded me the chance to have the best year of my young life, an experience which completely changed me and the direction my adult life would take.
I arrived in Hobart, Tasmania in August 1990 nervous and excited, hoping to make a good first impression. I walked into the gate area clutching my bag, scanning the faces to find people I thought looked like Rotarians. A tall, thin man caught my eye, broke out in a wide smile and said, “There’s our gal!” It was Gerry “Dad” Verdouw, who had helped bring me to Tasmania in the first place and who served as my first host father.
I have always felt at home with the Kingston Rotarians, and they have always made me feel like “their gal.” As a representative of their club, I did my best as an exchange student to make them proud and to serve as an example of service above self. I was always aware they had taken a chance on me, and I never wanted to give them a moment to second-guess or regret their decision.
The Kingston Rotarians opened their hearts and homes to me during my exchange year. I was invited to dinners, barbecues, camping trips and parties. I said yes to everything, which meant I received more invitations. At the end of my year, I had done at least one activity with every Rotarian in the club.
When I received the invitation to return to Australia to speak at the District Conference, I contacted my friends from Kingston Rotary to tell them of the invitation. Without me even asking for assistance, they surprised me by offering to obtain and rent an accessible vehicle for the duration of my stay in Tasmania. This generous offer made it possible for me and my cousin to travel at will around the island, seeing more people and places than I had hoped to see on my return visit.
Home is not just the place you were born. A person can make a home wherever good friends and love can be found. Kingston Rotary has always made their community feel like home for me, and I am grateful for their hospitality and generosity.
To the members of Kingston Rotary – it has been an honor and a privilege to be “your gal” for twenty-five years. I hope I continue to do you proud as a representative of your club’s commitment to international exchange. Your belief in me gave me the encouragement to keep saying yes to life. When you accepted me as your gal, you changed my world. Because you had faith in me, my ability to handle obstacles with confidence grew. I learned important lessons about mate-ship, tolerance, and service to others. I found acceptance and love on the other side of the world, and realized I could be happy and grow as a person wherever I was planted. I know the other students who have had the good fortune to be hosted by your club have benefited from the experience as well. I am a Rotarian with my club here in New York, but Kingston Rotary will always be a home for me. Thank you for giving me the chance to experience another culture. I appreciate your assistance with my most recent trip. My door is always open for any of you, whenever you want to come visit!