By Leslie Corn

Community Impact | #ExchangesImpact #CENETJ1

This summer, CENET hired a local advocate, Debra Chastain, to assist J-1 Summer Work and Travel participants spending their university breaks in Branson, Missouri. As a local advocate, Debra’s tasks included airport pick-ups and welcome tours, as scheduled by CENET’s Regional Coordinator. However, the position quickly became much more than a part-time job; through it, Debra found a new purpose, created lasting relationships, and encountered a life-changing cultural exchange without ever leaving her small Missouri city. Debra shared her J-1 experience below.

My husband and I retired and moved to Table Rock Lake outside Branson a year ago.  Branson is a small town with a population of 10,000 nestled in the Ozarks surrounded by lakes, rivers, and hills. Branson is a tourist town that millions of people visit each year.  Tourists come for lakes and outdoor recreational activities and for shows and attractions. There are also many who visit Branson from other countries and the community is very receptive to any and all, whether they come as tourists, retirees or to help boost the workforce & experience American culture.  The people of Branson as a whole are welcoming and hospitable.

Before retiring, I worked for the court system for 23 years, I was a mom to four amazing children, I was active in my church and Bible study, and I had many wonderful friends over my lifetime.  After retiring I was happy to slow down a little and leave behind some of the stresses, but I wasn’t completely content. The children had grown up and moved on, and I struggled with feelings of the empty nest.  I was happy for the adults my children had become, but I missed having them in my community, in church, and especially at home. Most of my adult life had been spent serving people, and with retirement came a new set of challenges.  There weren’t many people that needed me or that I could encourage along the way. I was a little sad for my old life and a little bit lonely.

When CENET offered me the community outreach job, I was elated.  Over the years I worked in several ministries at my church, and the one that I loved the most was working with college students.  I hoped that the job with CENET would be much the same as that.  As it turned out, it was and SO much more.

I tried to be a support system for the students that came here over the summer.  I didn’t want to deter them from making friends and settling in, but I wanted to help them if they were confused, homesick, or just in need of a friend.  At first, most of them felt homesick or confused by things.  They could all speak English, but when it came to conversing and understanding what was being said, they often needed me.  As time went on, they became very confident and more self-assured.  If they had a bump in the road, they would sometimes revert to being being homesick, and then I would step in and try and help them.  By the time everyone left to go back to their home countries, most were very sad to go.  They loved the experience, gained independence, and made lifelong friends that were hard to say goodbye to.

The students that I had the pleasure of knowing were so hard-working; many needed to make money while they were here.  Many had families that were depending on them and they came from places where it was much harder to earn money to pay for essentials.  I observed as some shopped on Skype with family members back home.  Others were excited to be able to help buy their siblings school clothes or to get something for their mother that she longed for and couldn’t afford.  For many of them, the cultural experience was possible because their programs included a work component. It was mutually beneficial because the businesses in Branson appreciated their efforts and needed their help during the high tourist season.

When the students first arrived here, I would ask them what they had seen on the internet, and what they hoped to do or see while here.  I then would incorporate that into their tours so they could get an overview. In addition to a tour, I invited all the participants I had contact with to at least one special outing that they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.  We had great successes at Silver Dollar City, water skiing, tubing, riding mountain coasters, visiting Springfield, shopping centers, shows and having meals in my home.  Of course, we also made many trips to Verizon, Super Walmart and Best Buy for electronics that they had only dreamed of before.

Most of the students still lived with family members before coming over here, and this was their first taste of total independence.  They grew up over the course of the summer. They valued home and family more since they were so far away and they came to love being here.  Their eyes were opened up to traveling, new friends and experiencing new things.  They had money that would help them to fulfill their educational dreams and to enable them to not have to work quite as much when they returned home to continue their schooling.   I think they left feeling like the world is a place to explore, and not nearly as big nor the people as dissimilar as they originally thought.

Sadly, some students were going back to places they feared.  They loved their countries, families and homes, but they were returning to turmoil and all the fear that encompasses.  The news of faraway bombings had a different meaning for the participants from countries in unrest, because the areas being bombed weren’t a world away; those areas were places they had family and friends.  Their hope is to return home, live in peace, be able to finish their degrees, and to have productive lives.  I also hope and pray for this for them.

While the students were here, I worried for the ones that may appear or speak noticeably different.  I prayed that they would be safe from prejudice that could cause emotional pain.  I worried that the ignorance of the unknown that is often prevalent in society could affect them or harm them.  Day after day I  hoped for the best from my community, and over and over again my faith in mankind was restored. I would have readily defended or protected my new friends, but fortunately that was never necessary.

This past summer gave me so much in the way of experience.  That feeling I had when I retired that I wasn’t useful went away.  The empty nest left behind by my children felt very full again.  The world I always wanted to see had pretty much eluded me, but this summer that world came to my doorstep.  I have at least 25 new friends on Facebook that I keep up with, and I have made promises that if I ever do travel, I will visit!  A day is yet to go by when I don’t have an email or a message from one of my precious new friends.  Some of them told my husband and me that we were their American parents and while that wasn’t the goal, I’ll take it.  I know as time goes on everyone will go on in life and communication will fade.  I also know even when that happens those students will live on in my heart and prayers.

-Debra

Special thanks to Debra and Rick for their dedication to the J-1 community in Branson. Your local initiatives have a global impact; thank you for making the world a kinder, more peaceful place.

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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