By Anniela Carracedo, member of the Rotary Club of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, United States and Rotary Youth Exchange Alumna
When I decided to become a Rotary Youth Exchange student, I had no idea how much it would change my life and the lives of everyone around me.
In 2017, I was invited to the Interact Club of Valencia, followed by my parents, who joined the Rotary Club of Valencia. I joined the club because I wanted to make a difference in my local community. I had seen Venezuela go from being one of the healthiest countries in Latin America to experiencing one of the worst humanitarian and economic crises in the modern world. Today it is considered the second-largest refugee crisis in the world, according to UNHCR. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how; Interact turned out to be the perfect combination of service and fun.
Then, I learned about the Rotary Youth Exchange program. I immediately applied and was selected to become a goodwill ambassador in the United States. Unfortunately, due to my country’s complex situation, participating in an exchange program was and still is a challenge. However, our 2019 district Youth Exchange chair, Francisco Padilla, made it possible for 70 of us to become exchange students. In my case, I had to cross the dangerous border between Colombia and Venezuela on foot to get my visa, because early that year, Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with the United States.
When I arrived in District 6840 in Mississippi, United States, I realized the true impact of Rotary International. I left my comfort zone, learned a new language, immersed myself in American culture, and shared my own culture in return. I told the community about Venezuela. They fell in love with my country. The local Interact club at Hancock High School joined an international project called Hope for Venezuelan Refugees, led by Cristal Montañez, a Rotarian from the eClub of Houston, Texas, United States. Eventually, the entire high school in a small town in Mississippi was collecting shoes, socks, and hats for Venezuelans leaving my home country and walking on the same path I did earlier that year in Colombia.
I took my role as a goodwill ambassador seriously. First, I presented about Venezuela to at least 20 classrooms in my American high school. Later, I moved on to Rotary clubs! I spoke to the majority of the clubs in southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Just as we were collecting donations, the whole world came to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the work was done, the connections were created.
District 6840’s 2019-2020 district governor, Robert Haeuser, led the efforts to donate to the projects that my Interact club in Valencia, Venezuela, was working on to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, district designed funds were sent to help three organizations that the Interactors partnered with:
- Fundación Panchito Mandefua (Panchito Mandefua Foundation) was supplying food and medicine to patients and doctors in the hospital. As there was a severe gas shortage, the volunteers rode their bikes to bring the food and medication during the lockdown. They were feeding over 100 people every day.
- Guacara fire station. The fire department didn’t have the resources to respond to the crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic. They had one ambulance unit and one rescue unit for a town with 200,000 people. The firefighter didn’t have shoes or the required response equipment and supplies.
- Home Shelter “Muchas Manos” provided a home for more than 58 children from birth to 18 years old, including teen mothers, young people with cognitive disabilities, and those no longer attending school. In addition, they feed over 100 children in the community.
Over 2,214 miles away, our efforts impacted at least 1,000 people in Valencia, Venezuela.
Now, the clubs and districts have built a strong relationship, which I hope will lead to a global grant in the future.
It all started with me, just one Interactor, who decided to become an exchange student and had Rotarians who believed in and supported youth programs.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts in celebration of Youth Service Month. Learn more about how Rotary is developing the next generation of leaders.