By Rachel Ethridge, High School Programs  Assistant

Our 2016-2017 CCI Greenheart exchange students have arrived and I was lucky enough to meet 39 of them a few weeks ago during our annual Chicago Welcome Program (CWP). We picked our group up from the airport on a Wednesday morning, and by that afternoon I was reminded of the exceptional qualities our students possess: an incredible amount of bravery, witty humor, a confidence that was unfamiliar to me at 15, 16, or 17, and an immense amount of intelligence that kept me on my toes all four days of the program.

Sarah Tolman, Ashley Taylor, Anna Cohen and I (as chaperones and CCI Greenheart staff) shuttled the group from the airport to our home base, Hostelling International, located in the heart of our beautiful city.  Once in Chicago, the students would meet their program managers, learn about the Greenheart Club, and exchange Facebook names, Instagram accounts, and Snapchat codes with their new friends from Germany, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Luxembourg, China, Montenegro, and South Korea.

Both Thursday and Friday mornings consisted of different programming during which the students learned about the role of their local coordinators, different situations they might encounter, and the many, many ways they can complete their volunteer hours while on the program, among other important topics of course.

As a group, the 44 of us (including our great leader, Stephanie Nosek) spent a few hours volunteering around Chicago Friday afternoon; opening up our student’s eyes to what volunteering means, how it can benefit others, and how it feels to help those in need.

Sarah, Stephanie and I took 10 of our students to a soup kitchen located in the basement of a church in Uptown (a northern neighborhood of Chicago). My heart still melts thinking about the four hours we spent chopping tomatoes, smearing peanut butter and jelly on bread, serving drinks and pasta to those who walked in that night,  and washing down tables. The most powerful memory for me was watching those students relish in their aprons and hairnets as they filled pitchers of lemonade, had conversations with strangers, smiled through every strange request, and complained NOT ONCE!

On our train ride back into the city to meet up with the rest of the group, I stood to the side and watched these amazing teenagers sit next to each other.  No longer were they sitting next to those who spoke the same language, but  now they were mingling with new friends, speaking English, laughing, taking selfies, having meaningful conversations; and there I was feeling like the proud weekend host mom ( like I did back in May during our Leaders Weekend), smiling so big and thinking about the incredible journeys on which they were about to embark.

At this moment, our 39 students are well into those journeys and we could not be more proud of them. Whether it was navigating our way through Chicago during a sweaty, fun scavenger hunt through the city, singing along to songs during the lakefront boat tour (during the sunset I have to add), or listening to their favorite parts of the program during our closing ceremony, CWP Group 2016 had a blast and we’re wishing all 2016-2017 students an amazing start to their year!

Are you interested in being a part of an amazing exchange experience? Visit CCI Greenheart to learn how you can host or work with exchange students, or become one yourself!