30 Days of Thanks Day 30 (finally!) – Kingston Rotary Club

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.

Photo of a man wearing a blue apron with the Rotary emblem. He is standing with two women who are drinking wine.
Doug is always wearing a Rotary apron at every Rotary party!

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.

Photo of people gathering at a barbecue on a patio outside a wood house.
Kingston Rotarians know how to party, and gathered for a barbecue in my honor when I arrived in Tasmania.

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.

Photo of a woman wearing glasses and a man wearing Rotary insignia.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!

30 Days of Thanks Day 6 – Bill

I was introduced to Bill Brundle on the radio. His voice came on the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) newscast every hour. I first heard him while my host parents were driving me to tour the school I would be attending as an exchange student.

It took me several weeks before I realized the Bill on ABC was the same Bill I saw each week at Rotary meetings. Hannah, the other exchange student also hosted by my host club, Kingston Rotary, was living with the Brundles. Bill answered the phone when I called to invite her to a party. I think I blurted out something like, “You’re the radio guy!” He laughed, thank goodness. He may not remember that call, but I do.

Bill and his wife Lyn invited me to their house while Hannah was still living with them. Hannah had talked about her host siblings Samantha, David and Solomon every time we were together. We had a wonderful dinner with plenty of conversation. I think Lyn was worried it may have been a little noisy, but coming from a large family myself I thought it was just like home.

Bill also gave me the opportunity to tour the ABC studio. At that time, I thought I might pursue a career in broadcast journalism. I had the chance to ask questions and observe a broadcast. It was a wonderful learning experience.

Because of Bill, I have remained connected to “my club” for the past twenty five years. Bill is the editor of the Kingston Rotary weekly bulletin. Each Friday morning, I wake up to an email from Bill with the latest update from the Club’s weekly meeting. I read about their fundraising efforts, their service projects, new members, their current exchange students and guest speakers. Sometimes the bulletins include updates from other former exchange students. I’ve never met them, but I feel a bond knowing we all had the privilege of being hosted by this amazing group.

Bill has been a dedicated and active Rotarian for several decades. He served as Team Leader on a Group Study Exchange to areas of the United States in 1997 and was District Governor for the Tasmanian District (9830) in 1999.

When the Kingston club agreed to host me, they made an arrangement of reciprocity with my home club in Bainbridge, New York. Since Kingston accepted me, as student with a disability, Bainbridge agreed to host an Australian exchange student with a disability.  Bill’s daughter Samantha was born with a rare congenital heart defect. Meeting me and observing my experience planted a seed in her head which would forever tie me to Bill and his family.

In 1995, Samantha came to New York on exchange. She lived with my parents for part of her year. During that time, she participated in many of my family dinners, just as I had as a guest with her family five years prior. My father, who is named Sam, was thrilled to have another “Sam” in the house. He still mentions his admiration for Samantha’s zest for life whenever we reminisce about that year.

Like my exchange experience, Samantha’s year would steer her in a course never imagined.  Upon returning to Australia, she followed her love of photography – a passion developed here in an art class. She went on to work for Club Med before marrying the love of her life and settling in Sydney.  Bill and Lyn were told at birth she would live just a few years. Again like me, she refused to conform to medical providers’ expectations and lived for decades until her death nine years ago.

As soon as I received the invitation to return to Tasmania, I emailed Bill and other Rotarians in Kingston. If I said yes, would they help me once again? Bill’s response came first – an enthusiastic yes!

In March, the day after I landed in Tasmania, Bill and Lyn were the first to arrive for a visit at my host parents’ house. Lyn was flying to Qatar to visit their grandchildren but she made time for coffee with me. I saw Bill again the following week when I was the guest speaker at Rotary. After my speech, we posed for a photo. I posed for many photos that night and each one is special to me. But the photo with Bill is one of my favorites. It captures the love and affection between friends in a natural embrace. I have it framed with other photos from my trip and look at each day with a smile.

Bill, I have always appreciated your support and belief in my abilities. On behalf of my parents and sisters, thank you for letting my family have your daughter as part of our family for a short time. Samantha taught all of us to live each day as fully as possible. She learned to reach for the stars from the lessons you and Lyn taught her. I will always be grateful for our shared connection. Thank you Bill (and Lyn!) for helping to make this return trip possible. As you know, there are many in New York who would welcome you with open arms should you come for a visit!

Photo of the author, a white woman wearing a blue dress and black cardigan sweater and sitting in a wheelchair, being embraced by an older white gentleman. He is wearing a suit jacket, shirt and dress pants.