By Emanuel Tumino, a member of the Rotary Club of Footscray, Victoria, Australia
A chance encounter on the side of a dusty road deep in the Queensland Outback will forever change the life of one teen-ager, thanks to the magic of Rotary Youth Exchange.
In March of 2012, I was one of three leaders for our annual safari tour for 16 inbound Youth Exchange students which takes students deep into the Outback for a unique look at Australia’s remote areas. The bus stopped for a coffee break along the highway at a town of about 350 consisting of a few shops, houses, and a post office with the only cappuccino machine in “town.”
As Geoff, another of the tour’s leaders, and I walked to the post office for our java fix, we noticed a teen girl sitting along the street watching traffic go by. She overhead us laughing about going to the post office to buy coffee and chimed in about having to get a haircut at the ladies dress shop. I realized this girl needed conversation.
Introduction to Rotary Youth Exchange
We stopped to talk and learned her name was Courtney, her father worked in the mines, and she was schooled through a virtual classroom conducted over the Internet from a studio in Alice Springs. She was one of only two teens in town, and spent Saturday mornings watching the occasional vehicle go by.
We explained the Rotary Youth Exchange program to her, and she accepted our invitation to meet the 16 students from different countries. It was clear she was in her element for those brief two to three minutes, and everyone shared Facebook information. I was the last to board the bus after our goodbyes, and saw tears welling up in her eyes.
We stayed in touch with Courtney through Facebook, but the bottom line was her family simply couldn’t afford a Youth Exchange.
In March of this year, I told Courtney’s story to this year’s group of inbound students, and to a person they all agreed we should stop and see her. She had moved even further down the highway to a town even more remote, nothing more than a toilet/bus stop on the highway and a few houses a short distance away.
And we almost missed her. There’s nothing to see in the town and most of us were half asleep, so the bus drove straight past the stop, Courtney anxiously waiting. Luckily, one of the other leaders had spotted her frantically waving, and we were able to loop back. Her father later told us he had never seen Courtney run so fast across the paddocks as when she ran back to the bus stop to wait for the return of the bus.
We spent half an hour with Courtney and she had a great time with all 33 students. She talked about her classes through the Internet and her part time job cattle mustering. She wanted to go on an exchange, but her parents still couldn’t afford it.
Heading to Brazil
But this time, things were different. After many calls and communications with Rotary District 9550, financial support was lined up and she was accepted into the Youth Exchange program. While finances remain an issue, Courtney is saving as much as she can and is looking for extra work where available.
Except for her courage to jump into our conversation over a year ago, none of this would have happened. That moment very well may be a turning point in her life. And she will probably not fully realize the extent of it until after her exchange to Brazil.