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From the Executive Director: ‘What difference can exchange programs make?’

October 9, 2009

Through our programs, IRIS hopes to provide participants with the skills to make their home country and community a better place. Our U.S. government and many organizations spend millions of dollars each year bringing youth and adults to America in the hopes of promoting mutual understanding, alleviating negative stereotypes and hopefully planting the seeds for a more peaceful and understanding world.

But how do you know if you are making a difference?

For those of us at IRIS, we see it in the actions of our program participants once they return home. Each of our YES students are required to take part in community service activities while they are in Iowa in the hopes that some of these skills and desire to help others will stay with them when they return home. It rarely occurs the moment they return home after their year in the U.S., but when it does happen, I am always impressed!

Service in action: A former YES student gives back in Tanzania

Tasim as a YES student in Grinnell, Iowa

Tasim as a YES student in Grinnell, Iowa

I heard recently about one such student. Tasim Harun from Moshi, Tanzania, a former Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student. She spent the 2007-2008 academic year in Grinnell, Iowa.

My initial impression of Tasim while she was here was that she was more interested in fashion and making friends than volunteering. The phrase “selfless service to others” really wasn’t a term I would have used to describe her. So, I was pleasantly surprised (no, actually amazed) when I learned of all the wonderful acts of kindness she is exhibiting back home in Tanzania.

Tasim (now 19 years old) is helping HIV victims in the local hospital in Moshi. She takes them food, helps them bathe and provides them with comfort as they struggle with their illness. When a patient dies, she helps to contribute to their funeral costs.

She has all but adopted a local orphan in the community of Mkombozi. The young girl’s name is Jackline, and she is 7yrs old. Tasim buys clothes for her, takes her places and just reminds her that she is not alone in this world.

Tasim also volunteers to clean up roads in the community and encourages others to keep the environment clean. In addition, she started working with mentally disabled children at a school near her home. She teaches them to write and just reminds them to enjoy life. (Keep in mind that she is doing all of this at the same time she is going to school. Wow!)

Tasim isn’t the only example of the power of our young people to change the world. Every year, these transformed young men and women demonstrate to their classmates, family and friends back in these developing African countries that giving back to your community is much better than sitting around waiting for your community to give to you. As the song goes: “You don’t have to be old to be wise.”

We all have something to give in this world. Thank you to the U.S. Department of State for funding the YES program and other similar exchange programs. Thank you also to everyone who touches these students’ lives during their stay and helps to demonstrate and instill great community service values that will indeed last a lifetime. You too can make a difference!

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