Rotary Youth Exchange shaped my life

Denise DiNoto

Denise DiNoto

By Denise DiNoto, Rotary Club of Colonie-Guilderland, New York, USA

In August 1990, I left my hometown in rural upstate New York, for a year as an exchange student to Tasmania, Australia. The experience helped shape my adult life, as it has for many other exchange students. However, my situation was unique because I was one of the first students with a mobility impairment to participate in Rotary Youth Exchange.

At the time of my exchange, I was able to walk short distances but used a manual wheelchair for the majority of my community mobility. I was unable to independently climb stairs, stand from a low chair, climb into a bathtub, or pick myself off the floor if I fell, which I did quite gracefully about once every month.

Denise and Samantha during their exchange year.

Denise and Samantha during Samantha’s exchange year.

There were people who doubted how well I would do in an exchange because of my disability. They questioned how I would thrive in a foreign country and if I could ask strangers for help. Some wondered how I would participate in exchange activities, such as the nearly month-long tour around Australia – a highlight of the exchange. A few even suggested I excuse myself from the tour because I might be a burden on other students with my need for regular assistance.

But Rotarians believed in me, selecting me to be a representative of my country and Rotary. When others questioned my decision to leave home at age 16 and live for a year on the other side of the world, Rotarians gave me a chance to live my dream. Rotarians supported and encouraged me throughout my year abroad. Because Rotarians believed in me, I became more confident in my abilities.

Lessons I learned during my exchange still resonate. Independence is not doing everything on your own. It is recognizing that asking for help can increase your opportunity to fully engage in the activities of your choice. Strength is not the ability to climb Kings Canyon with 80 other exchange students. It is advocating for your rights when facing discrimination from those in power. Home is not just the place you were born. Home can be wherever you find love and friendship.

Rotarians supported and encouraged me throughout my year abroad. Because Rotarians believed in me, I became more confident in my abilities.

As part of the arrangement with Tasmania, my home club also welcomed an exchange student with a disability. Samantha “Sam” Brundle was born with a rare congenital heart defect and came to New York on exchange in 1995. My parents hosted Sam, and her year started her on a course she could never have imagined. Returning to Australia, she went to work for Club Med, met the love of her life, married, and settled in Sydney. Her family was told at birth she would live just a few years. Samantha died in 2006 at the age of 30.

I will always be grateful to those special Rotarian supporters, in the United States and in Australia. I hope they fully understand how much their confidence transformed me into a confident, well-rounded adult. Now that I am a Rotarian, I am honored to be back in the Rotary family, performing service for others.

Learn more about starting a Rotary Youth Exchange

Denise DiNoto works as an outreach advocate for people with disabilities at Consumer Directed Choices and has held title and leadership roles with the Ms. Wheelchair America advocacy program. Active in the community, she is president of The College of St. Rose Alumni Association and a member of the Colonie-Guilderland, New York, Rotary Club.

15 thoughts on “Rotary Youth Exchange shaped my life

  1. What a beautiful story !!
    Thank for sharing your experience.
    Now, as a Rotarian, you can continue to ” give back” to others.

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  2. Pingback: Rotary Youth Exchange shaped my life | Warsaw Rotary , Club 3393, District 6540

  3. Denise, What a wonderful story. I love stories like this. I have been navigating around with limited mobility my entire life due to poliomyelitis. I was stricken as the age of 6 1/2 months old. My life has consisted of a wonderful 42 year career in dentistry, married for 45 years this June and have 3 children and enjoy 8 grandchildren. When I retired I finally had the time to write my Memoir and share my story. I hope it leaves everyone who read it with inspiration and encouragement. My book “All The Steps I Have Taken” went live in August 2012. I enjoy speaking to church groups, Rotary groups, Thanking them for all they do to eradicate polio from the face of the earth and 6th graders in schools on don’t treat someone that is different differently. My days are very busy and I love it that way. Now in my 60’s I notice a lot of slow downs. It takes me a lot longer to do any task that I set out to do. I never loose sight of my purpose and still do everything I can in my day to make someone else’s day the best it can be. You go girl. Keep your positive attitude and you will continue with such a strong force. God’s blessings to you.

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  5. Proud to be a ROTEX and a Rotarian!! Thanks for leading the way for mobility impaired to experience youth exchange which is a life-enhancing event!!

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  6. Denise…….you were an inspiration in school and you have carried that role into your adult life. I was proud of you then, and I am still proud of you today. Denise, always the strong one and extremely determined. I am the lucky one to have crossed your path in my life. You are a fond memory of my early years in BG that I will carry with me forever, (along with, of course, your partners in crime: Steph, Allison and let’s not forget, George)

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    • Thank you so much! I’ve never tried to be inspirational, just tried to do my best to live each day to the fullest. Apparently, because I do that with a disability, that is encouraging to others, but we all have the ability to adapt and thrive in our environment if we chose to. I was blessed to have mentors like you who believed in my abilities along the way and who encouraged my dreams and adventures.

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  7. Awesome story….glad someone was willing to take a chance. I’m sure this has changed your life in so many ways and changed to life of your parents….Sam and Sam’s parents….and so many others. Hope you might consider hosting yourself now as an adult.

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  8. Pingback: Saying yes – and learning to say please | DeeScribes

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