Travelling to other countries can give you a lot of perspective about where you come from.
For example, exchange student Bridget Bontekoning is from the Netherlands and has spent the last three weeks in Ontario as part of a program with the Lions Club International.
She said she’s realized this province – in comparison to her home country – is a pretty big place.
“The Netherlands is so small: everything is so close. You have to drive like two hours and you’re in another country,” she said.
“Here, you drive six hours and you’re still in Ontario,” she added.
Bontekoning and a handful of other young people visited Niagara-on-the-Lake on Thursday, just one stop on their month-long trip in Ontario with the Lions International Youth Exchange Program.
Dorothy Soo-Wiens and Erwin Wiens hosted a barbecue at their home for the travellers, and the youths were given jet boat trips at no cost thanks to the Stamford Lions Club and the Niagara Lions Club.
The program offers young people between the ages of 15 and 22 the chance to explore new cultures, gain a better understanding of the world, and make new friends.
It runs throughout the world in various Lions’ districts.
However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the District A-2 Lions Club of Southern Ontario hasn’t been able to run the program — until now.
The A-2 District welcomed 13 exchange students here at the end of June, ending an almost four-year hiatus.
The students will be here experiencing Ontario for about 30 days.
Bill MacKenzie, the coordinator of the Ontario Lions Youth Exchange for the A-2 District, said they usually have 20 participants — but it’s been hard to find host families.
Families across southern Ontario who are part of a Lions club host the students.
The students spend 20 days with their host family, then they spend 10 days at camp on a bison farm near Hagersville.
MacKenzie has been involved with the program for about 20 years and enjoys the experience from start to finish.
“The changes you see in these kids over a month is unbelievable,” he said.
As part of the camp experience, the youth go on excursions to popular destinations across Ontario — including Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Soo-Wiens said her daughter went to Croatia with the exchange program in 2017, and she’s been hosting the barbeque at her house since about 2016.
By the end of camp, the youth will have visited Niagara Falls, Toronto, NOTL, Turkey Point and Port Dover, to name a few locations.
Faustine Roy from France and Bontekoning have really enjoyed their time with their host families in St. Thomas and Hagersville, respectively.
“(It) has been absolutely amazing,” said Roy.
Bontekoning said making new friends at camp has been a highlight.
“Getting to know each other and how they say a word in their language and our language and just comparing everything, I think this is really cool,” said Roy.
“We spend a lot of time together just talking about our countries,” she added.
To learn more about the program, you can visit www.lionsclubs.org.