This past week, after almost 30 years, I returned to the place my wanderlust took hold. When I was sixteen, I applied for the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. I thought it would look good on my college applications so I put on my Sunday best and marched into the interview knowing the moment was pivotal but having no idea why.
As the Rotary Club of Bellevue commenced the interview, I had butterflies. I knew, with every fiber of my being, that I wanted the set of wings they were offering. As my day to day life continued, my mind was full of dreams of far off lands.
The following week, when I answered the phone, I was stunned into silence. I was selected for the Rotary Youth Exchange International program. I was asked if I would be interested in the year-long program versus the summer stint for which I applied. I accepted right then and there and had no idea how any of it would come together, yet I was certain that it would.
As I watched my kids jump off the cliffs at Shellharbour Beach, just south of Sydney this week, images of my teen-age life here washed over me …
- I remember wanting to go home during the first few months, and how that fear slowly shifted into feeling like I was home in a new way.
- I remember sitting through my classes at Warilla High School and learning for the first time that even subjects like spelling and math change when you learn from a different country’s perspective.
- I remember tears streaming down my face and clutching the velvet cushion of my Sydney Opera House seat, as Phantom of the Opera played out so beautifully before me.
- I remember climbing Ayers Rock as the sun dropped and the earth turned pink at my feet.
- I remember witnessing the Great Barrier Reef for the first time and feeling overly protective of nature’s abundant gifts.
- I remember trying to navigate family life and customs at 16, sometimes gracefully and other times painfully.
- I remember learning about service and community from the Shellharbour Rotary Club. They expanded my definition of family by including me in theirs and accepting me at a time when I wasn’t sure I accepted myself.
- I remember flying away, forever changed, as the words from my farewell address ran through my mind: “Before I left home I was afraid of change, but now I am afraid of each day being the same.”
At 16, I didn’t know that there are 34,282 member clubs worldwide and 1.2 million individuals called Rotarians spanning 200 countries. I didn’t know that these localized clubs had a powerful international creed and had contributed to improving the world through: promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, supporting education, and growing local economies. What I did know was that their values were alive within me.
I attended Rotary Youth Leadership Awards as a guest speaker and volunteered for Bainbridge Island Rotary events when possible. When I became a high school teacher, I helped many of my students apply and find funding for exchanges and travel experiences that they never would have believed possible.
A version of The Rotary Four-Way Test became a framework I have used for decision making throughout my life …
The Rotary Four-Way Test
Of the things we think, say or do …
- Is it the TRUTH?
- Is it FAIR to all concerned?
- Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
- Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
As we prepare to leave Shellharbour, Australia this week, my host family will take us to the airport. This time it is not just me saying goodbye, but my husband and children who are now connected to this community. This impressive, worldwide organization, has figured out how to exact global initiatives by fostering meaningful local relationships. It is a valuable leadership model in today’s tumultuous world.
Thank you to Rotarians the world over who replace fear with fellowship, and cynicism with service by putting people before policy. It takes courage and commitment to do what you do. Thank you for the seeds you planted that have led me on this rather unconventional life of never-ending travel, but more importantly a quest for understanding and community building. And thank you for giving me the one test, The Four-Way Test, that I look forward to taking every day.
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