Jay Copp 2017-10-16 14:47:08
CHANGE THROUGH AN EXCHANGE The Lions Youth Camp and Exchange Program Transforms Lives In two trips abroad to Denmark and Japan, Katie Wong, 22, ventured into new realms. She dined on exotic foods, visited historical sites and, in living with host families, immersed herself in the everyday life of another culture. She also met, quite literally, a boatload of new friends. Now a college senior in California, Wong spent two weeks on what she fondly calls a “pirate ship” with 25 other young people. The crew sailed in the seas around Denmark aboard a sailing ship. They adopted a rugged sailor lifestyle, putting up the sails, scrubbing the deck and sleeping in hammocks. Studying kinesiology and preparing for a career as a physician’s assistant, Wong returned to the States as a changed person. “I learned so much about so many things. I got out of my little bubble,” says Wong. “It taught me a lot about responsibility, communication and being open-minded.” Wong is one of tens of thousands of youths who have taken part in the Lions Youth Camp and Exchange Program (YCE). The Los Angeles International Lion Club sponsored her two stays abroad. YCE often is a transformative experience. Living in close quarters with youths from a dozen or more other nations plays out as a broadening, exhilarating adventure. Sharing meals, small talk and frequent outings quickly break down the barriers that seem to separate youths from different cultures. “We hope the youths become global citizens,” says Michelle Anderson, the former YCE coordinator at Lions Clubs International (LCI). “It’s part of the mission of Lions Clubs to promote peace and international understanding. The program does that powerfully.” Participants follow a familiar arc of progress. “They’re timid and nervous at first. But they meet people from all over the world, and they start to get comfortable and understand another culture,” says Anderson. YCE students stay with a host family, either a Lions’ family or a family vetted by a club. Or they live for a week or two at a Lions Youth Camp overseas. Many trips involve both a camp experience and a host family stay. She also met, quite literally, a boatload of new friends. The exchanges, mostly during the summer, are for youths ages 15 to 22. Each year thousands of U.S. youths, sponsored by a local Lions club and partnering with a host club, head overseas. Youths similarly come to the United States. LCI does not keep an exact count of participants, but in a typical year more than 250 camps and host family stays are available. LCI began YCE in 1961. “Camp” actually is a misnomer. Some stays are in an actual camp facility, some even at a Lions camp, with plenty of swimming, boating and hiking. But more often “campers” stay in a group home, dormitory or hotel and enjoy cultural activities more so than outdoor pastimes. Duncan McPherson, 47, of Orlando, Florida, stayed in a hotel in Japan with youth worldwide as well as with a host family when he took part in YCE in 1990. The trip was a pivotal experience for him. “I was just thinking about it the other day,” he says. “You have to be open to new things. Like fish for breakfast. They do things a little differently there.” McPherson, who was a Lion for a couple of years, works at Disney World and often encounters Japanese. “I use a little Japanese. They love it,” he says. “The thing about the Japanese is their hospitality. They went out of their way for me. I try to go out of my way for them.” Some of the camps today offer a specific theme. The popular Sound of Music camp in Austria is for youths who play an instrument or sing; on the last day the youth perform together at a concert. Other camps cater to certain youths such as a camp in Italy for those with disabilities. Costs are divided—not necessarily evenly—among the host club, the sponsoring club, the participating youth and the host family. LCI’s role is to help connect clubs and youths interested in an exchange with camps and host families. The LCI website has a pin-dotted Google map showing the location of camps and host families as well as some details and contact information. It’s up to clubs and youths to contact the Lions overseas to reserve a spot. Studies have shown that international youth exchanges increase the skills, confidence and sense of empowerment of participants and also lead to greater civic involvement. As one example, nearly 3,500 students took part in the U.S. Department of State’s Youth Exchange and Study Program after it was begun in 2002. Independent researchers found that the students, mostly Muslim, did much more community service after returning home than they had prior to their stays in the United States. Some of the YCE stays devote a day or two to service. Lions are determined to not only showcase their cultural heritage, cuisine and customs but also impress upon their guests the centrality of service in their community. A recent camp in Turkey included a beautification day in an impoverished Romanian neighborhood. Youths selected for YCE need not have prior ties with Lions. But Wong happens to have plenty. Her grandmother, Dorothy Lew, is a member of the Los Angeles International Lion Club. Her late grandfather was a district governor. As a child Wong collected pop tabs for Lions for a Ronald McDonald House and cleaned out the eyeglasses from the receptacle in front of her grandmother’s home. She still attends club meetings with her grandmother to spend time with her. Extra Digital Content Read about the first year of the youth exchange program and an eye-opening account of youth exchange a decade after its founding.
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