The world at your door

Volunteer work is a great way to get involved in your community, meet new friends and develop skills and connections that can lead to paid work. I know this firsthand: I volunteer all over Asheville, and I’m proud of the work I do and the connections I’ve made.

I moved here nearly five years ago and quickly contacted the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to see what I could do to help educate local youth about nutrition, growing food and local agriculture. I was pleased to see such an organization in place, and I’m happy to report that they’ve made great progress over the years.

As a volunteer, my interests have always revolved around education. But as someone who loves to travel and connect with different cultures, I felt myself drawn to the “glocal” scene — groups working locally with a global perspective. Asheville has such opportunities in abundance. I tutor with the Buncombe County Literacy Council, I’m a board member for World Camp (which sends high-school and college students to Malawi as volunteer teachers, providing social services, education and nutrition in one of the poorest places on earth), I’m part of the Safe Schools for All Coalition, and volunteering with The Center for Diversity Education led to my current position as the group’s road show coordinator, which enables me to teach about different cultures’ holidays and festivals in schools all over Western North Carolina.

Which brings me to my role as an area rep for Youth For Understanding. I joined YFU in 2009, believing Asheville could benefit from the cross-cultural-exchange opportunities this nonprofit provides. Students from more than 60 different countries can come to America for a year, stay with a local family and attend a local high school. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful, open-minded and hospitable place than Asheville to welcome some of the world’s brightest and most courageous youth.

My own interest in international affairs and perspectives began in high school. My senior class included exchange students from Sweden, Germany, Quebec, Chile and South Korea, and I fondly remember the cultural understanding I gleaned from spending time with these new friends. It was their experience in my town and my exposure to their respective cultures that led me to become a world traveler and an international-education professional. Academic-year exchange opportunities tend to have an even greater impact on the host parents and siblings: Many families remain friends with their exchange students for life.

So when I heard about what YFU is doing, I knew I wanted to be part of it. As a graduate student with a one-bedroom house, I couldn’t be a host myself, but happily, this didn’t prove to be a barrier to getting involved. Youth For Understanding is built on a foundation of volunteers who give their time and skills in exchange for rewarding cross-cultural experiences. I wanted to engage with the international teens and their families in whatever ways I could — and I’ve sure managed! I’ve attended international potlucks, helped with orientations for both host families and newly arrived international students, and developed relationships with local high schools and wonderful families in my community.

Now more than ever, WNC schools are trying to give their students a global edge, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by inviting greater cultural diversity into the classroom. When a smart, curious, respectful student is welcomed into a local home to share their experiences and questions with their new friends and hosts, the whole community benefits.

I am currently seeking volunteers — both host families and organizational supporters — in and around Asheville (see box, “Families Without Borders”). It’s a commitment, to be sure, but I promise you this: if you sign on, you are in for a deeply rewarding experience you will never forget!

— Asheville resident Sarah Jane Delcambre is pursuing a master’s degree via the Vermont-based School for International Training’s “low residency” distance-learning program.

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