Late in 1994 (has it been that long?) we took a wild chance, and applied for an AFS grant to go to Russia. They were working on a school exchange program that would allow an American school to send students to Russia, then be visited by students from their sister school. Though we were pressed for time, an effective proposal was assembled, and the application mailed. Imagine our surprise when we were selected to participate! Our joy was soon tempered by our realization of the amazing amount of work we would have to do in order to get ready quickly enough.
In less time than anyone thought possible, donations were gathered, visas approved, passports walked through the halls of Congress, and 11 Americans were on their way to Sestroretsk, Russia. The sponsoring teacher was Mr. David Woody, and the lucky students included Juniors Kasey McCall, Leah Gissy, C. W. Almond, Mary Azar, Elisabeth Bird, Brenda Weinheimer and Kelly Hattman, & Freshmen Mark Mallett, Lydia Mlot, and Rachel Bird. By late February 1995, they were flying from Columbus to Cincinnati to Frankfort to Prague to St. Petersburg in only 16 hours. A bleary-eyed group was met by the most friendly people we had ever tried (unsuccessfully) to communicate with. In short order, we were bused to Sestroretsk (32 Km North of St. Petersburg), placed in loving homes, fed, and put to bed. Thus began 3 weeks of an amazing intercultural experience. Mr. Woody, having been raised during the Cold War years of fear and distrust, was most pleased to find that Russians were just what he had always expected them to be: congenial hosts, loving parents, devoted friends, and philosophical conversationalists. Most importantly, we had developed working relationships whose future may continue infinitely. To paraphrase my Russian brother, Sergei, "this is how the problems of nations are resolved. Not by governments who argue and threaten each other, but by men who sit together with the love of brothers, and discuss and solve their problems."
By late April, English Teacher Lyudmila Alekseevna Kuznetsov had brought her students ( Olga Davydkina, Yulia Bogdanova, Irina Yagovkina, Tanya Gusyakova, Nadya Gordina, Anton Korsakov, Ilya Furayev, Sergey Saverski, Sacha Basos, and Vadim Platonov) to America for their first trip ever. They witnessed their first softball game (Tanya even dressed with the team), and toured important West Virginia sites: Blennerhassett Mansion (via riverboat), the State Capitol (recognized by the Delegates), golf courses, bowling alleys, and nearby theme parks (Sea World, Cedar Point). Best of all was their attendance at our Junior-Senior Prom, a definite "first". By the time our friends returned to the local airport, we were almost unwilling to let them go. We had developed the closeness AFS must have hoped for when they proposed the program. By November, we were submitting a proposal to continue the program by creating a second exchange between the two schools.
Two years later, again with the administrative and financial assistance of AFS, we managed to pull off the entire process successfully again. This time, the Russians arrived in March, and the leader was Computer Teacher Nadya Lugovaja, with her students Tanya (her daughter), Masha, Rita, Sergey, Andrei, and Natasha. Even more amazing was the opportunity to host the headmaster of our Sister School, Galina Savelyevna. Having an administrator come along, seemed the perfect opportunity to create a continuing relationship between our two schools, and perhaps two educational systems. Our guests were treated immediately to a State Girls' Basketball Championship, followed by more personal experiences, since they visited during our Spring Break. This allowed various students to have trips to New York, Washington, and Florida. Again, we had difficulty sending them home.
Our contingent this time was led by Bob Hattman, our principal. Though more skeptical than Mr. Woody about the extreme benefits of the program, he decided to see for himself whether it was worth continuing. He returned a firmly-convinced veteran. Our students who traveled this time were Matt Wilsbacher, Julie Ward, Melissa Estrada, Maria Cataldo, Jennie Hattman, and Michelle Wallan. The experiences were quite different, but the results were the same. The program is an unqualified success, and the relationship between our schools has grown even more. Every person who has participated in this program, as traveller, host family, sponsor, or parent, has admitted to the life-altering nature of such an experience. None of us will ever be able to look at a citizen or photo or news story from the other country again, and not base our interpretation on our experience. It will be impossible for us to view each other as anything other than friends, and that makes world peace just a little bit more of a reality.
Does the program have a future?
E-mail some of our friends?
SEE what our trips were like?
Back to the main Russia page.
Back to Mr. Woody's Homepage.