At just 16 years old, Ana was so confident that she and her wheelchair would soon be on their way to the U.S., she told practically everyone she knew that she had applied to the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Although Ana didn’t make the final selection pool the first time, she tried again a year later.
“When I applied the second time, I didn’t tell anybody except my mom. Most of my family found out that I was going to fly two days before my flight when we had my farewell party. They were shocked!”
Her family didn’t have to worry for long though, because soon enough Ana was high in the air on her way to live with a host family and experience a year of high school, first in Florida and later in Missouri.
Ana embraced life and new opportunities to be independent as a typical American high school student living with her host family. “It is very interesting to see family culture because it is a little bit different [than in Moldova]. We don’t get such freedom as Americans do, or at least I don’t! I enjoyed that freedom. You get to know other people, how they think, what they do, and also they learn from you so that is quite interesting.”
A fearless athlete with or without her wheelchair, Ana had many opportunities to be involved in sports for the first time while enjoying life as a high school student in the U.S. “I was involved in the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA) where I was on my school’s running team. I was the only runner with a wheelchair!”
Ana sought out other new sports too, including swimming and sled hockey, an adapted version of ice hockey where athletes sit atop a short sled mounted with hockey skates. “You would think that it was very easy! That’s what I thought when I first saw a sports team doing sled hockey, but it is not!”
The learning opportunities kept coming as Ana learned first-hand about independent living with a disability in the U.S.
“My first host mom has multiple sclerosis so she uses a wheelchair too. The house was adapted for her so it was easy for me to be comfortable. They also made some changes for me; for example, they put grab bars in the bathroom, and the bed was too high for me, so they took it apart and lowered it.”
Ana changed host families part way through her academic year abroad, and to her delight, she and a member of her new family shared a special bond. “My host mom’s sister has Cerebral Palsy (CP) like me, so her house was perfectly accessible. That was pretty cool!”
During her FLEX year, Ana discovered other simple adaptations for accessibility, such as corner protectors in the home and swimming pools with ramps that make getting in and out of a pool safe and accessible for people with disabilities.
She also gained a deep appreciation for the feeling she got from being treated equally and included in all activities.
“I always believed that people are the same everywhere. Here, I saw that there are no boundaries between kids.”
By the time her year in the United States came to a close, Ana had gained maturity, stronger English skills, and a lifetime of memories to reflect upon. Time to fly again, this time back to the family awaiting her return to Moldova!