More than three decades ago, Cornelius business owners Mary and Richard Colven fell in love while living in Japan as exchange students.
They were part of a group of 50 students selected nationwide to participate in the Japan/U.S. Senate Exchange in 1982. They spent eight weeks in Japan the summer before their senior year in high school.
Today, the duo helps spearhead an effort by two lake-area Rotary clubs looking attract and create cultural ambassadors through the Rotary Youth Exchange program. The North Mecklenburg and Huntersville clubs are part of a global effort that helps send more than 8,000 students to more than 200 countries annually.
Students, ages 15-19, can come to the United States for one year while U.S. students can choose either one-month or one-year options. Last year, the North Meck club welcomed its first student, a girl from Brazil. David Weidner, 16, moved in with the Colvens in August as part of the program.
Originally from Darmstadt, Germany, Weidner has an 8-year-old sister; his dad is a civil engineer and his mom is an international flight attendant. His city has a population of roughly 140,000 people and is located between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. He finished 10th grade before coming to the United States and will start 11th grade when he gets back to Germany next year.
“High School is much different than in the movies, where you see big groups of bullies beating up on the nerds,” he said. “There are more things similar on another part of the world than you expect. People are actually struggling with same problems.
“I like having a hot meal for lunch and dinner and sitting down with family,” he said. “In Germany, we usually do a hot meal at lunch and light dinner at night. Of course, I have to get up very early for high school here, and I ride the yellow school bus, which is very American. In Germany, I go to school by walking to the city bus stop … and then walking up hill to my school.”
Richard Colven, David’s host dad and volunteer Rotary Youth Exchange Officer for the North Mecklenburg Rotary Club, said his exchange experience positively altered the course of his life.
“Most people resist becoming a host family because they say they are too busy,” Colven said. “I counter that by telling them that hosting will help them break out of that prison and start enjoying their lives.
“You gain a built-in excuse for doing everything that you want to do but are too busy for,” he said. “It makes you examine your life much more critically, and it adds a spark through the energy of a great young person with a lot to share. And you end up actually appreciating your own children more as you see them interact with a newcomer to the family.”
Mary Colven, David’s host mom, said her 16-year-old junior has been busy enjoying Spirit Week at Hough High School and recently had to figure out whom to invite to homecoming.
“He plays chess with my 11-year-old daughter, he plays tennis, walks our dogs, he loves computer games and is very fond of my taco pie recipe,” she said.
The Colvens plan to encourage all three of their school-aged kids to go abroad.
The couple dropped out of the corporate world to open a dog boarding and daycare facility in Cornelius. Richard has been a member of Rotary Club of North Mecklenburg for about three years. Mary helps coordinate logistics and helps them register at Hough High School.
“For local North Carolina students to go on exchange, the opportunity with Rotary is too good to pass up,” Mary said. “If you saw an ad seeking world ambassadors, which promised a four-week adventure for your teenager in a foreign country with native speakers as their guide … why wouldn’t you send your child?”
Last year, the Kelly family hosted Emi Werlang from Brazil. George and Laurie Kelly thought the experience would teach their daughters – Allison, 15, and Anna, 12 – about a different culture.
“We originally went down the host family path, seeing it as an opportunity to help a young person explore their dreams,” George said. “We soon discovered that this experience was not just good for the exchange student but for the host family as well. … She showed us that there is no reason to feel confined by geographic borders and that people all over the world are basically the same.”
Laurie said the best part was gaining a lifelong friend.
“The team at Rotary made it very easy, and they coordinated several group outings for the exchange kids that proved to be big memory-makers,” she said. “What we learned is that once you open your home and open your heart to someone new, they will change you. In our experience, that change was overwhelmingly positive.”