Every summer, teens and young adults from all over the world get to experience other cultures through a Lions Clubs International program.
The service club organization has more than 45,000 clubs worldwide, according to the group's website. Many of those clubs participate in the Lions International Youth Camp and Exchange Program. The student exchange program, which began in 1961, allows young people to spend a few weeks in a foreign country, learning about the culture and forming friendships with others from all over the world. Promoting international understanding and peace among various cultures is part of the Lions Clubs International's mission.
This year students traveled to the Palmetto State from Austria, Germany, Italy, Mongolia, Poland, Switzerland, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, Israel, Finland, Hungary, Belgium and the Czech Republic. They spent the first two weeks with host families across South Carolina and the next two weeks doing the touring camp part of the program, traveling the state as a group. A group of 15 students recently visited Hilton Head Island.
Lions chaperones took them kayaking on Hilton Head and canoeing along Cedar Creek at Congaree National Park. They took them to Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, to a water park at Fort Jackson and to the Historic Charleston City Market. They even ventured into North Carolina to do some white-water rafting on the Nantahala River.
Anu-Ujin Gerelt-od, 15, of Mongolia, said she enjoyed visiting the beach, going on roller coasters at Carowinds and seeing dolphins while kayaking on Hilton Head.
"I learned a lot about the American culture," Anu-Ujin said. "The way they live is so different. Oh, I like the drive-thru thing -- drive-thru banks, libraries. I never saw those before. ... People are much kinder and generous (in the U.S.)."
While on Hilton Head, Anu-Ujin and her group stayed at St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church. While traveling the state, they stayed at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg and other churches and facilities along the way.
Coordinator of the South Carolina exchange program, Camden resident Jim Varn said he decides which students get to come here through the program. He said it's usually on a first-come, first-served basis and suggests applying in August for the following summer.
The program worldwide is open to students between 15 and 22 years old, but each program can make its own rules. Varn said this year's South Carolina program was open to ages 15 to 18, but he might change that to 15 to 17 next year. All students visiting the U.S. must speak English. Varn noted that almost all the programs worldwide already are English-speaking programs. To apply, students should contact a local Lions Club member and ask for their endorsement.
Participants are required to pay their own airfare and pay a $500 fee. Host families are expected to provide food and usually end up paying for recreational activities, Varn said.
"What we're trying to do is build rapport with kids and build goodwill with young adults of other countries and cultures," Varn said. "It's planting seeds for the future."