By Molly Vidmar, High School Program Assistant

What do Pierluigi from Italy, Onno from Germany, Anahit from Armenia and Tala from Jordan all have in common? They are all exchange students in perhaps the most empowering year of their lives, they all volunteered over 75 hours, and they are the winners of the Greenheart Leader Weekend to Chicago! Every year, the Greenheart Club awards four exchange students who have demonstrated leadership and  passion for volunteering with a trip to the headquarters of CCI Greenehart .  Ashley and I are both newcomers to Chicago, so it was a novel time for us as well, to chaperone these exemplary members of the Greenheart Club.

We kicked off the weekend with a Welcome Dinner at the Greenheart Center, followed by games, glow sticks, and s’mores on Ashley’s rooftop in Lincoln Park, with a stellar view of the Chicago skyline.  The Greenheart Leader Weekend is near the end of the exchange program, so everyone shared their emotions and excitement (and photos!) of prom, graduation, and end of school activities. It was a great time to reflect on how much they have grown this past year and how this program has changed their world view. The American high school experience is different for each exchange student. Onno has host siblings, whereas the others do not. Tala experienced her first Christmas and said it was magical because her host mom, LC Jacki Medeiors, puts up nine Christmas trees! We laughed over the silly questions that people inevitably ask you when you are an exchange student. Do you eat with a fork in your country? Do you have cars in Germany? Is Italy in Africa?

Friday, the students met the Greenheart staff and toured the Greenheart offices. There was a pizza party and presentations on their unique volunteering experiences. We learned that Pierluigi spent his school year volunteering at a planetarium, where he taught children about science and how to build simple machines. Onno shared how rewarding it felt to hand out food to the homeless. During Tala’s school year, she volunteered with nineteen organizations. Anahit also worked with several organizations, such as peer court and The Red Cross. After these inspiring presentations, we made our way to an underserved neighborhood in Chicago, where we volunteered at Bright Endeavors, a social enterprise which provides job training to young mothers, who make beautifully scented candles. We learned about social enterprise and helped them paint, clean, and take inventory.

Later, we sat front row on a Seadog speedboat for an architecture tour of Chicago. It was Anahit’s first time ever on a boat! We traveled through the locks that connect Chicago river to Lake Michigan, and gained the unique perspective of the city by boat. Sunset brought on a cool breeze and the city lights!

Saturday morning, we strolled through Millennium park, taking in the tulips and taking fun photos  in front of Cloud Gate, the iconic “Bean.” The NFL draft was in Grant Park, so we walked through a frenzy of football fanatics. Pierluigi played football for the first time in his high school this year, so this was especially amusing to him. After walking down the Magnificent Mile, we watched a Cubs Game at Wrigley Field because what’s more American than football? Baseball.

Our last night, we went to see Blue Man Group and before the show, on the stage was projected this quote,

“If you would like to establish a connection with people from another culture, it’s always good to offer a few gifts as a gesture of friendship. But, an even better way to forge a lasting bond is by creating something together. Whether it’s a meal, an art project, or just a spontaneous dance party, when you create with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime.”

I could not believe how well this quote represented our weekend together. We shared meals, stories, struggles, hopes and dreams, and created wonderful memories.