Guest Column: Forging lifetime bonds through Riverhead Rotary

02/04/2017 5:59 AM |

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Each year, Rotary International selects students to study and live in countries all over the globe. The Riverhead Rotary Club has participated in the program for more than 40 years and some of Riverhead High School’s most prominent graduates have spent a year in another country to enhance their education, courtesy of Rotary.

My husband, Antonio DeGrasse, was a member of Riverhead Rotary for more than 30 years, serving as its president in 1994. At one point that year he brought home an application for Marcela Andrea Castillo-Castillo of Rancague, Chile, with the idea of convincing me to take a student into our home.

It was a hard sell, having just emptied the nest of Antonio’s two children, but it was the best decision we ever made. That relationship taught us as much as we taught the exchange student. And it made it easier for Antonio to convince me to take in a second student, Macarena Serrano-Gonzales of La Serena, Chile, in 1999.

In a sense, we became parents to two Chilean daughters. They were two young women who came to a foreign country not really knowing the language or the culture, dropped in a high school of strangers, coming out as self-assured young women who knew their worth and what they wanted from life.

When asked how the experience affected her, Macarena responded, “I think the experience of being a Rotary exchange student continues to change your life long after the experience. I think the year made me appreciate what my parents taught me about tolerance, diversity, effort, experience and education. The program delivers values and makes you live different realities, which makes you a better person.”

In 1996, Antonio and I visited the Castillo family in Rancague. That bond continues to this day.

I recently returned to Chile to visit the family again. Even though I was without Antonio on this visit, I was still greeted as part of the family. I spent New Year’s Eve 2017 with 28 members of the Castillo family.

Marcela is now married to Gustavo Ponce Soto and is a lawyer specializing in medical malpractice. She and Gustavo live in Rancague. She has been back to the U.S. six times to visit over the years; coming twice with her husband, who actually asked Antonio for Marcela’s hand in marriage.

I spent Christmas with Macarena’s family in Vina del Mar. Maca is a new mother to 5-month-old Dominga Antonia, making me a “grandmother.” She is married to Igor Morales and they currently live in Santiago. Maca has a degree in international business and is currently employed by the American engineering company Bechtel. She has visited us three times, once with her fiancé, and even came to help when Antonio was released from the hospital several months before he died.

Maca’s mother, Sandra Gonzales, opened her home to me for four days of holiday festivities. Maca’s father, Alex, hosted a dinner at his home in Santiago in my honor.

It was a crushing blow to us when Antonio’s health prevented us from going to Chile for the weddings of our two daughters. Our bonds have continued to grow with the advent of FaceTime. I speak to my daughters once a week through video and find Macarena raising Dominga to be a dual-language learner. She and Igor speak English to their daughter, as well as Spanish.

When asked what advice she would give to future Rotary Exchange students, Marcela said, “My advice to all new Rotary exchange students is to be open to the new experience; it is a new culture and you have to be respectful about many things — traditions, religions, politics, and behaviors. Always remember you represent your country.”

So here’s a special “thank you” to the Riverhead Rotary Club for enriching the lives of two Chilean young women and numerous families in our community by providing this program.

Photo caption: Spending New Year’s Eve with the Castillo family in Rancagua. (Courtesy photo)

The author is a retired educator and member of the Riverhead Board of Education.

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