Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
I will never forget the day I met my host father, Mark, in the arrivals terminal at Bishop International airport. Mark offered his hand and greeted me by saying, “Merhaba,” which means hello in Turkish. I was both surprised and happy at the sincerity of his greeting and instantly felt very close to Mark. My first impression proved true, and throughout the year I had a very strong relationship with my host family.
My role as a CIEE cluster leader is to organize enhancement activities that build the leadership and teamwork skills of my students. Last year I had sixteen students in my cluster, two of whom were students with disabilities. Both were studying in the United States on programs sponsored by the U.S Department of State.
There are certain activities that we do every year as a cluster. One of the most memorable of those activities took place in the winter. All sixteen of my students went up to our little cabin, which is what we do every year, to go cross-country skiing.
The main reason I applied to the YES program to the United States was because I wanted to experience a place where people are different, yet not judged by their differences; a place where my abilities would be seen objectively. My parents were really encouraging because they knew my determination and capacity for overcoming difficulties.
Growing up, Haben Girma knew that international exchange was bound to be in her future. She had visited Eritrea and Ethiopia, places her parents called home before immigrating to the United States. So when Haben learned about BuildOn (www.buildon.org) as a teenager, she was determined to go. She was excited about BuildOn’s mission of empowering and educating youth by building schools in some of the world’s poorest remote communities and knew first-hand the importance of access to education.