Rotary resources keep Glenwood exchange student connected
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Being responsible for a foreign exchange student studying in Brazil, where torrential rains, devastating flooding and a mudslide had just hit, was a nightmare situation for Trish Kramer.
As a Rotary Youth Exchange counselor, Kramer had few words to offer the Glenwood Springs parents, Leigh McGown and Ted Kaufman, who trusted their 15-year-old daughter Serena to the program.
Once they found out that Serena was safe and removed from the heart of the disaster that hit the Rio de Janeiro region on Jan. 12, they began asking whether she should come home immediately or stay to finish out her five months of study.
“We had a hard time because we couldn’t talk to anyone and get a real sense of what it was like,” said McGown.
That’s when Kramer turned to ShelterBox. Usually, people rely on this international relief organization for emergency shelter. But in a country facing what the United Nations has called its second worst national disaster, Kramer was hoping to use the organization to get information.
“Here is the favor I ask of you,” Kramer wrote in an e-mail to the ShelterBox Brazil representative. “Can someone in Rotary who is familiar with the conditions of Nuevo Friburgo now, with how the repair work and plans for the future are going, be able to give you or us an eyewitness report? Is the air quality safe? Is it realistic for this 15-year-old to finish her year in the town she loves?”
Amazingly, Kramer got her answers. Within 24 hours, ShelterBox response team member Scott Robinson e-mailed back and said Serena should stay.
In an email to to local Rotarians, Kramer wrote, “He first told me that I would not believe the amount of devastation to this town. My heart sank. Then he answered many of my questions about safety, health and sanitation. He is impressed with the hard work being done to bring the town back to normal.”
Kramer was relieved. And she was so glad her local Rotary Club had already chosen ShelterBox to be their global club project.
Three years ago, a ShelterBox representative made a presentation to the Glenwood Springs Noon Rotary Club about its program, which delivers emergency shelter, warmth and dignity to people affected by worldwide disasters.
The international relief charity brings in large green plastic boxes filled with a range of items, depending on the need. Usually the box has a 10-person tent, a cook stove and a water purification system. There might also be mosquito nets or warm hats and gloves, depending on where the disaster area is.
Rotarian Pam Pine saw the presentation and was so impressed she became the district representative for ShelterBox in this Rotary Club region. During the past two years, she has travelled in Colorado, Kansas and Utah making presentations about ShelterBox and collecting donations.
“It’s so easy to talk about this,” Pine said. “You just know this money can be used so well. Your contribution can provide people with life-saving measures.”
When Glenwood Springs Rotarian Bob Bradshaw passed away from cancer two years ago, the family asked for contributions in his memory be made to ShelterBox. Barbara Bradshaw said her husband had been very impressed by the organization. The memorial contributions were enough to buy four boxes, which ended up in Africa.
“Some Rotarians in Africa saw Bob’s name on a ShelterBox and they looked us up,” Bradshaw said. “The box was, in fact, doing some good.”
ShelterBox has a goal of helping 500,000 people each year. So far, the group has sent out 96,537 boxes.
Tom Henderson started ShelterBox in 1999 after watching a disaster unfold on television. He saw aid workers throwing loaves of bread on the ground and people scrambling to get the food.
Henderson felt bad for these people who had lost everything and immediately jotted down notes on the things he would need after a natural disaster: shelter, warmth, comfort and dignity.
Then he approached his local Rotary Club with the idea of providing sturdy boxes packed with supplies. Since then, ShelterBox has helped more than 750,000 people worldwide, responding to more than 100 natural disasters.
Knowing the organization’s busy schedule, Pam Pine was surprised that Robinson would take the time to communicate about the safety of an exchange student caught in a natural disaster.
“I think it’s the most wonderful thing,” Pine said, “We were able to use resources to connect and feel safe and relieved.”
Leigh McGown said they could trust the information Robinson offered.
“He has been to other natural disasters,” McGown said. “And it was an American’s perspective. He’s also a father and has two daughters.”
After the Jan. 12 disaster, Serena left Nuevo Friburgo with her Rotary host family and moved to Rio de Janeiro. However, she is eager to return to the city that has become her second home. About a week after the disaster struck, she wrote an e-mail to the Post Independent about her experience.
“I’m just staying pretty calm about it. It’s really intense to be in this and to actually see it with your own eyes and know this happened where you have been living, but I’m just very happy that my family is okay. I’m okay. My house is okay. My fellow exchangers are okay, and I’ve been able to talk or hear about a good amount of my friends, and they are all right as well.
“But things are pretty devastated, and rather than being scared, I really wish I could be in Friburgo helping right now,” she wrote.
McGown said Serena’s school will require significant cleaning before it is ready to open. The school was on summer break when the flooding and mudslides occurred. However, McGown said some teachers were missing. Preliminary reports indicate that the best case scenario would be that school would open for the year about three weeks late.
McGown said Serena would like nothing better than to return to Friburgo and get involved in a junior service program.
“She needs to get back there and get some closure,” her mother said.
Kaufman’s year of study as a Rotary youth exchange student wraps up in June.
She is one of 80,000 students who participate yearly in the Rotary youth exchange program in 80 different countries.
McGown said when Serena decided to participate, she didn’t really know where she wanted to go – maybe France or Spain. Rotary randomly assigned her to Brazil, and it turned out to be a perfect fit.
“Serena told me, ‘This is exactly the country I was supposed to be in. I love Brazil,'” McGown said.
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