by Britt Aamodt
The YMCA has a presence in more than 120 countries. Last week, the Elk River chapter hosted nine members from the German YMCAs in the area around Luedenscheid. The teens and two leaders stayed with host families in Elk River, Zimmerman and Otsego.
The student exchange has taken place every summer for the past 27 years, said Katie Lowe, executive director of the West St. Paul YMCA and co-organizer of the two-week stay. Teen members from both Minnesota and Luedenscheid alternate years in visiting each others’ countries.
This summer, however, was the first year the German students were hosted in the Elk River area, said Bjorn Dixon, pastor of the WHY Church, which offers Sunday services and ministry through the Elk River Y.
Dixon, wife Esther and their twin daughters hosted Svenja Roth, one of the two leaders, in their Zimmerman home.
The exchange fits into the Y’s mission, which has the stated aim to create strong kids, strong families and strong communities. How that mission plays out is dependent on the location. In some areas of the world, the Y serves as a child’s only access to a public library or a teen’s access to information on HIV/AIDS prevention. Some YMCAs focus on job training.
Svenja Roth works for the Luedenscheid Y.
“I work with many age groups,” she said. “Youth groups, leadership education for volunteers. I do a lot of work with women and girls.”
She and her fellow travelers commented that in Germany the Y has a stronger tie to the church. In America, especially in summer, the Y provides day activities and excursions for kids, some of whom come from two-income families where parents aren’t home during the day. The Elk River Y is a destination for adults and seniors looking to work out and stay fit.
The German students’ introduction to Minnesota began in the Boundary Waters, where they canoed and fended off the “state bird.”
“I never want to talk about mosquitoes again,” joked Roth, who also found her canoe hung up on what she thought was a rock but turned out to be a snapping turtle.
They had a chance to visit a couple Northlands YMCAs before busing south and arriving in the Elk River area on July 27.
While in the area, they undertook day trips, including visits to the Walker Art Center sculpture garden, the Mall of America, the Science Museum and a YMCA camp along the St. Croix, where they played games and engaged in a round of soccer.
Some of their best times, they said, were spent with the host families. Max Linneweber’s host family took him fishing. Others enjoyed outdoor barbecues, take-out pizza and a Group Cycle class at the Elk River YMCA.
Of the nine students, only one had been to America previously.
Their take on the host country?
“Americans are so busy,” said one. Another commented that it was like in the movies, “Everything’s so big.”
Rather than differences, the students said they saw more commonalities between their culture and the American culture. Now they have a town, a host family and memories of mosquitoes and potluck dinners to carry home to Germany and attach to the pictures of America they see on TV.
The host families, too, have gained a lot and not just the German chocolates the students brought as gifts.
Dixon was thrilled with the exchange.
“It’s a partnership we’re looking forward to developing,” he said, “especially here in Elk River at the WHY Church.”