When I was 17 years old, Rotary International gave me the opportunity to live in South Africa for 12 months.
My parents and brothers worked seven jobs to pay my way. That year changed everything about my life’s path and shaped my world view. It has impacted every major decision I’ve made since.
Many decades ago, Rotarians began creating these Rotary Youth Exchanges to foster global understanding and respect. A young girl or boy from an average family could spend a year in foreign lands, while in the safe arms of local families who created a framework for exploration.
I observed the last hurrahs of apartheid. We lived under a state of emergency with intense military presence including soldiers on our school buses carrying automatic weapons. The media was under total censorship. But even then, in the pre-internet world, ways were found to share truths and I was able to learn the horror of what was really happening in townships and black communities throughout the country.
Much of it didn’t make sense to me then. But I took it all in and my social justice conscience began to be shaped and formed. Twenty-five years later, as a mother, I unlock these observations with a different perspective. My youth exchange experience is a lens though which I examine life’s challenges, thanks to Rotary, and my families both here and there.
Around the time I went on my youth exchange, Rotary International was embarking upon its campaign to eradicate polio. I vividly remember those beginnings. I saw the ravages of the disease up close.
We are “this close” to ending polio because people like you created a culture of global thinking for people like me. We are “this close” because you have never given up. We are “this close” because your hearts are big and you were willing to take a multi-generational position. You knew it wouldn’t be solved in 5 years or even 10. You knew it would take a truly long view.
And all the while you sent young girls and boys out into the world so we could learn, engage, and be passionate about people from everywhere. It is true, Africa takes a piece of your heart and claims it for her own. It’s been 25 years since I breathed African air. I long to return. But I don’t need to be there to love that great continent or her many peoples; and to work with them for a better future.
Chrysula Winegar is a mother, social media consultant and work life advocate. She is passionate about mothers and their capacity to change the world. She blogs at WORK. LIFE. BALANCE. and When You Wake Up A Mother as well as a regular contributor for MomsRising.org, the Huffington Post and BlogHer. She is also community manager for the United Nations Foundation’s Million Moms Challenge