Originally published Northwest Quarterly March 4, 2020
For the young adults in Rotary Youth Exchange, lessons in love, loss and cultures abound.
Gary and Sue Riegler, of Crystal Lake, are committed to connecting with students and their families globally. Gary is the Rotary Club of Crystal Lake Dawnbreakers’ Youth Exchange Officer, a position that allows him to arrange inbound and outbound high school student exchanges. The Rieglers
have hosted three students of their own.
“Rotary Youth Exchange keeps changing our lives for the better,” says Gary, a Rotarian for more than 20 years. “We love the students like family, and we love seeing them grow into remarkable adults. Though there are cultural differences to share, families
around the world have many similarities.”
High school student Charlotte Egert, 16, of Germany, is the club’s current inbound student. Crystal Lake native Franco Pietramale, 15, heads outbound for France this coming fall. Students arrive in August, before school starts, and return home the following June. Each student lives for three months at a time with a host family, allowing three different families to provide a diverse perspective on local culture.
“I wanted to learn about another culture,” says Egert. “I was interested in learning English well and having the opportunity to travel outside of Europe. I was also excited to live with a supportive host family in another country. I learned that Rotary carefully checks out the host families, which gave me a good feeling.”
Egert began her exchange in August, residing with Ellen and Kevin Bruning in Crystal Lake. Ellen is a retired school principal and previously served as the Rotary District 6440 Youth Exchange Officer. She and Kevin are members of the Fox Valley Sunset Rotary Club, which draws members from Crystal Lake, Algonquin and Elgin.
The Brunings first met Egert when they traveled to Germany for the 2019 Rotary International Conference. Their initial bond was deepened as the three lived together for three months this past fall. “Kevin and Ellen helped me deal with missing my family and my boyfriend,” says Egert. “They encouraged me to make new friends and gave me the chance to travel around the United States. I feel like I am part of their family.”
In December, Egert moved in with her second host family, Dawnbreaker member Kay Stanish and her husband, Jeff. “It’s different at the Stanish home,” says Egert. “They have two sons who attend school with me at Prairie Ridge High School. They are my host brothers, and we are becoming close. I like experiencing different homes.”
As much as things can appear different, though, Egert finds there are also many similarities among families. “I learned that all families, like mine, care for each other, argue sometimes, yet love each other in good times and bad,” she says. “I used to think my parents were the only ones who would argue. But every home has that, and that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. All homes have happy times and laughter, too.”
Youth Exchange embraces the joys of new friendships and expanded families, as well as the losses and heartaches of life that transcend all cultures. Love and loss are especially challenging when experienced long distance. When Egert’s great-uncle died this January, she couldn’t be present with her family as they grieved the loss. With tears in her eyes, Egert shared memories of her great-uncle at a recent Rotary social, her host families and Rotary members there for support.
Hugs were exchanged, and when tears subsided, members offered their continued support if Egert wanted to talk again or just needed another hug. One day, when feeling sad, she texted her host brother’s girlfriend, who made time to visit, listen and offer comforting hugs. The rituals may differ, yet everyone understands the pain and loss of a loved one.
Rotary Youth Exchange has brought students from many other countries to Crystal Lake’s high schools, and it’s sent dozens of local students to places where they can experience new languages and cultures. Franco Pietramale, a student at Crystal Lake’s Prairie Ridge High School, spent a summer exchange in Switzerland last year. He enjoyed the experience so much he agreed to spend a nine month exchange in France, starting this August. France was one of his ideal locations, but it’s a difficult one for American students to reach. French exchanges require students to speak fluent French. Lucky for Franco that he speaks English, French and Spanish, and he’s learning German, too.
Through Rotary Youth Exchange, Franco is developing not only his language skills but his leadership abilities. “Someone who puts in effort for what they truly want to achieve and who inspires others: that’s a leader,” says Franco. “Even when experiencing bumps in the road, they take advice to improve in a disciplined manner to prepare them for their path in life.” Franco believes it’s important to focus on leadership at an early age, so one can benefit self and society.
Rotary Youth Exchange is a program of Rotary International, which was founded in 1905 by Chicago attorney Paul Harris. The global service organization has 33,000 clubs and 1.3 million members. Rotary members are community volunteers who serve for the betterment of world peace, literacy, polio eradication, safe water and many more causes. The Rotary Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and is recognized by Charity Navigator around the world as one of the best foundations.
Gary and Sue Riegler have embraced students from many cultures and countries, including Germany, Poland, Belgium, Spain, France, Japan and Brazil. They have enjoyed learning about loose teas, Belgian chocolate and German holidays. They’ve enriched their lives with international travel. “With so many differences in culture and backgrounds, we love learning from each and every individual in the exchange,” says Gary. Sue finds there are some important similarities among all of these students.
“They are so brave,” she says. “Each one of the students faces challenges during their exchange and has risen to the occasion. Health issues, sports limitations, language struggles, homesickness, losing a loved one back home – all types of difficulties can occur during the time of the exchange.”
The Rieglers believe that, by overcoming life-changing obstacles in a different country without parents near, these students have grown to be more self-reliant and confident. “We have kept in touch with most of the exchange students over the years,” says Gary. “Some with letters, email or Facebook, and for others, we have visited their homes and families. It is very rewarding to see them become doctors, business owners, community
leaders and parents.”