Simply giddy with excitement, Momoka Tawada showed off the pretty blue eye shadow and matching blue nail polish she had done for Blaine’s prom night.
“I’m so happy. I’m so excited. I’m going to prom tonight,” the teenage girl said last Saturday morning, her eyes dancing and a smile stretched across her face.
She sounds like a typical girl looking forward to the biggest dance party of her high school years.
But Momoka isn’t a typical girl headed for prom. She’s one of 62 teenagers from around the world, visiting the United States as part of Rotary International’s youth exchange program.
Busi Mashele is another student staying locally as part of the youth exchange program. Busi is visiting the U.S. from her home in South Africa, and while here, the world-traveling teenager is taking the stage for Coon Rapids High School Theater’s performance of “All Shook Up.”
“I play the lead in one-act plays at home (in South Africa), but the music, the dancing – that’s very new to me and I’m having a great time,” Busi said.
Busi and Momoka and two dozen more Rotary youth exchange program participants took part in Saturday morning festivities as part of the Rotary District 5960 Conference staged at the National Sports Center April 25-26.
District 5960 Conference
Under the leadership of Anoka Rotarian and District 5960 Governor Gary Campbell, last weekend’s District 5960 Conference in Blaine was the first time the conference has ever been held in the north metro area.
“We’re happy to have everyone here. This is a great event, a great chance for everyone to get together,” Campbell said Friday afternoon.
A record number of more than 300 Rotarians representing 51 of District 5960 Rotary clubs attended the district conference this year. District 5960 covers a geographic area from Albert Lea to Hayward, Wisconsin, and from Winona to Princeton and includes nearly 3,000 Rotarians participating in 63 clubs.
The conference weekend consisted of annual meeting activities, committee work, reports and updates on Rotary programs.
Visitors from afar
In addition to the 26 youth exchange students who attended the district conference, five Swedish professionals took part.
Vibeke Hyltén-Cavallius, a member of Rotary International’s District 2400 of Sweden, brought mechanical engineer Dan Martinsen, business developer Karin Malm, IT technician Ola Jönsson, and receptionist Therese Brusbo to the U.S. as part of Rotary’s month-long group study exchange, an international exchange program for young professionals.
During their four-week visit, the Swedes will travel the country, visiting businesses similar to their own, and exchanging ideas in their respective fields of work.
Keynote speakers for the conference included Past Rotary International President Rick King, Rotary International President Representative Marcy Ullom, Sudanese Lost Boy David Acuoth, and Executive Director of the Etta Projects Pennye Nixon.
Blaine/Ham Lake Rotary highlight
A highlight for the Blaine/Ham Lake Rotary Club came when those Rotarians received a District Literacy and Education Award. That award recognizes “significant support of literacy and education (which) has helped strengthen individual dignity and self-worth of people, thereby strengthening the foundations of international goodwill, understanding and peace,” as stated on the award certificate.
Blaine/Ham Lake Rotary President Chris Hasling described some of the many ways his club supports literacy and education. Among those are the distribution of paperback dictionaries to every third-grade student in Blaine elementary schools (the Dictionary Project), collecting and shipping books to school children in Africa (Books for Africa), bringing educational and health care provisions to families in Guatemala, and donating time and energy to STRIVE (Students Taking a Renewed Interest in the Value of Education).
STRIVE activities had Blaine/Ham Lake Rotarians meeting with Blaine and Spring Lake Park high school juniors and seniors at least eight times each year. During those meetings, Rotarians work with groups of students, helping them identify ideal career paths and describing to those students the educational paths necessary to take in order to land jobs in those careers.
Scholarships totalling $5,000 are also awarded as part of Blaine/Ham Lake Rotary’s STRIVE activities.
As for winning the District Literacy and Education Award, Hasling said, “We made a commitment last July that we would complete five special projects to enhance literacy locally and internationally. Once we accomplished that, we knew we would get the award.”
Exchange students’ inward travels
Rotary youth exchange students are gaining international education and insight on many levels.
For Momoka, prom is just one of the highlights of her visit, the Japanese girl said.
“America has (people from) many countries come here. I wanted to meet many people and learn of the many countries,” she said. Momoka also noted visits to the Mall of America, eating cheese curds, making new friends, and being part of the Blaine High School class of 2014 as favorite things about her American visit.
Host parents James and Jenny Depoint of Blaine have delighted in “seeing Momo grow and develop and flourish,” James said.
“She’s come in to a brand new culture, new people, new language … And for us to see her learn so much is really neat,” he said.
As for Busi, an “adopted” member of the Todd and Kellie Mensink family of Coon Rapids, the friendships she’s forming as part of the youth exchange are remarkable.
“It’s amazing to see how in an instant you can make friends from all over the world. And that started with Kellie and Todd,” Busi said.
Reflecting back on 10 years hosting exchange students, Kellie put it this way, “The goal is to treat them just like one of our own kids.”
“We try to expose them to as many things as possible whether it’s shopping at Costco, eating at numerous restaurants or going to local Minnesota attractions,” she said, adding that “we remain in contact with many of our past students – It is so exciting to see the direction their lives are taking.”
To learn more about Rotary International or to find a club near you visit Rotary.org.
Sue Austreng is at