By Jireh Mabamba
Sometimes, all you need is a chance – that one opportunity of a lifetime. Rotary gave me that chance.
I grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where human life has little value. Children are taken from their families and forced into the army, women are raped daily, and men are killed in front of their loved ones. Massacre is the norm. The only way to survive this brutal environment is to flee the country, and when I was nine, that’s what my family and I did.
We moved to South Africa, a country that was foreign to us on so many levels. The language and the currency were different. We knew no one. Of the few people that showed us kindness, most were Rotarians. They came forward and helped us when we needed it most. At that time, I knew nothing about Rotary. In 2007, Rotary Youth Exchange students from Australia, France, Germany, and the U.S. came to my school for their year abroad and it was through them that I truly became interested in Rotary.
I learned about fellowship, the value of friendship, and what it means to serve. The more I learned of the work of the Rotary Club of Durban Berea, the more my interest grew. When I completed high school, Rotary International gave me the opportunity to be an exchange student in Duluth, Minnesota, USA.
My life changed in so many ways during my exchange. I grew as a leader by surrounding myself with Rotarians who were leaders of action in their professional field and their community. I contributed to hands-on projects that made immediate impact in the community. When I met other youth exchange students, I was exposed to new cultures, traditions, and languages. My experience built my self-confidence, allowed me to be more globally competent, and it gave me an opportunity to make lifelong friends.
When I returned to Durban, South Africa, after my exchange, I joined the Rotaract Club of Durban Berea to be with people my age who knew the value of serving others. This allowed me to further develop my leadership skills, to network, and to continue having fun with like-minded people.
I was accepted at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, allowing me to return to the U.S. in 2013. I built upon the relationships that I had developed during my exchange year with host families and Rotarians to found the Twin Ports Rotaract Club in Duluth. I started this club because I felt empowered by Rotarians from Durban and Duluth. My goal was to form a group of vibrant and dynamic individuals who enjoy serving their community, a group that does not discriminate based on gender, race, or nationality.
Twin Ports Rotaract has done several service projects in Minnesota, South Africa, and recently in Guatemalan communities. When I look back, I can see how my life has been completely transformed by the generosity of the people I met through the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Today, I am more passionate about empowering others and making a significant impact in the lives of the people I meet because of the Rotarians who took the time and believed in me.
About the author: Jireh Mabamba lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, Kayla, who is finishing her doctorate degree in physical therapy at the University of Minnesota. He works for the University as an Associate Development Officer for the College of Education and Human Development. His primary responsibilities are to connect and reconnect with alumni of the college – to assist and advise them with their philanthropic goals and priorities regarding the college.