When Annie Reifsnyder became an Area Coordinator for CCI Greenheart, a non-profit organization that places international high school exchange students in the United States, she found a way to connect with students from around the world.
One Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Russia in particular caught her attention. “I received Natasha’s bio and was kind of enamored by it,” Reifsnyder says. “I just thought how neat, how cool, how amazing, obviously a student who wanted to come to the U.S., but one who is blind.”
Reifsnyder contacted schools in the Milwaukee area, where she is based, and found a placement for Natasha at Rufus King International School. “Quite honestly, it was like it was meant to be,” Reifsnyder says. “I emailed the school district right away and they were just very amenable.”
Reifsnyder monitored Natasha’s host family and school experience throughout the year and made sure that she was fully included in volunteer service projects and enhancement activities with other students.
“Just because you have a student with a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do amazing and awesome projects and activities with them,” Reifsnyder says. “We went rock climbing, we went on community clean ups, we did projects with urban farms.”
The experience wasn’t just valuable for Natasha—it also made an impact on the students, faculty and staff around her.
“One of the vision teachers ended up hosting another student this year,” Reifsnyder says. “I don’t think she would have done that if she had not had that exposure to Natasha during her time here in U.S.”
Reifsnyder’s most important piece of advice for other area and local coordinators is to treat students with disabilities the same way they treat students without disabilities. “[It] just takes a little bit more time, patience, perseverance and planning,” she says. The ultimate goal is the same—to work with the students to make sure that they have a successful exchange experience.