When Leah Klassen of Niagara-on-the-Lake left for the Netherlands on a Rotary exchange, she knew she was in for an adventure. She had no idea, of course, that her adventure would be cut short by a worldwide pandemic.
Klassen left home last Aug. 10, landing in the province of Noord-Brabant, where she would connect with the Rotary Club of Helmond- Regio. She settled in with her first host family, and began attending high school classes (Klassen graduated last June from Laura Secord Secondary School).
She quickly made new friends, and on weekends enjoyed trips sponsored by the Rotary Club to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Aachen, Germany.
The avid equestrian was even fortunate enough to be placed with a second host family who owned horses. The family kindly brought in a new horse named Daantje, and Leah was able to train and bond with her new equine friend.
After overcoming a brief battle with homesickness in October, she began to enjoy herself thoroughly, while having opportunities to meet other exchange students from around the world at Rotary gatherings and events.
Then, while home from school suffering from a cold in late February, a fellow student there was reported to have a case of the novel coronavirus. Klassen herself, luckily, showed no symptoms of COVID-19.
“I was very grateful that I was not at school during that period,” she says. “My house mom and I made the decision to keep me home from school, so I had not been out much for the past couple of weeks there.”
The virus started spreading across the Netherlands, with her province being hit hardest. A quarantine was enforced in Helmond, and Rotary Club members from NOTL, who were planning to visit, were forced to cancel their trips.
Klassen was in frequent contact with her parents back in NOTL, as well as with the Rotary Club, and at first the decision was made to stay put. Flying home seemed to carry with it too many risks.
Says Patricia Murenbeeld, NOTL Rotary’s youth committee chair, “as far as Rotary International was concerned, we were abiding by public policy and the World Health Organization, which all stipulated that it was safer to stay where you are than to travel.”
But things began to change. Klassen, who had been in contact with other exchange students scattered across Europe, began to look at the availability of flights back to Canada. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stepped to the microphone in front of Rideau Hall on March 16, telling Canadians it was time to come home, her decision had been made.
She arrived in Toronto two days later, cutting her exchange stay short by more than three months. She’s happy she’s home, but the feeling is bittersweet, as her departure was so abrupt, she had little time to say goodbye.
It was a similar experience for Frida Nielsen, the 19-year-old student from Sweden sponsored by Rotary Niagara.
On March 13, when the Ministry of Education announced that schools would be closed for two weeks following March Break, Nielsen had already heard that other exchange students had begun to return home.
As the situation became more dire around the world that weekend, she began to worry she might miss her chance to get back to her family.
“It changed so quickly, that Monday, it was like they were closing the country,” says Nielsen. “Then, that Wednesday, Sweden also said they were going to close their borders. So that’s when I started freaking out, because what if I got sick in Canada, or someone in my family got sick in Sweden, we wouldn’t be able to go see each other.”
Nielsen flew back to Sweden March 21, and celebrated her 19th birthday with her family at their home in Hofors.
“I was really happy being home, but the sadness started kicking in a few days later,” remembers Nielsen. “I am missing my Canadian friends, my host families, my Rotary Club, and I was looking forward to our Rotary New York trip (which was cancelled).”
The reality of the situation for both girls is, had they stayed put, they would be holed up with their host families for at least the month of April. It wouldn’t have been the usual enriching Rotary Youth Exchange experience for either girl.
Murenbeeld is the Rotary District 7090 vice-chair for their Northern Europe Youth Exchange program. The district includes Rotary Clubs in Niagara, Hamilton/Brantford and Western New York.
This year there were 36 students involved in exchanges: 18 outbound, and 18 inbound. Of that total, 13 are still here in North America, while three from local Rotary Clubs are still abroad.
Looking ahead, the COVID-19 pandemic is already affecting next year’s exchanges. Murenbeeld says both Australia and Denmark have pulled out of the program, forcing one NOTL girl to postpone her exchange for a year. She’s expecting more countries to make their final decisions at the end of April.
With schools currently closed, all four of next year’s local outbound students may have to postpone their plans.
“When I get a student assigned to me, I need to go to the school’s guidance department and get a form stamped, then I march over to the school board to submit it to their international department,” says Murenbeeld. “With schools closed, I can’t get the documentation that is needed.”
Other Rotary youth programs have fallen by the wayside this year, as well. Both the four-day Adventures in Citizenship Ottawa trip and the Slapshot leadership weekend were cancelled.
But Murenbeeld remains optimistic that these programs will be back next spring, although the uncertain length of time attached to today’s current reality may put the exchange program on hold for 2020-2021.