When the 4-H’ers from Newfoundland met their hosts from Pincher Creek District 4-H, the kids in both groups were shy, awkward, and a little bit (or even very) apprehensive.
Seven days later, “we could tell when the kids were saying goodbye that they were going to miss each other,” said chaperon Myra Hammond.
Fortunately, they knew the separation would be brief and the Albertans were Newfoundland bound in a week’s time. Those contrasting airport scenes are just two of many memorable events that are the stock and trade of the 4-H Canada Club to Club Exchange.
The program pairs groups of 10 kids aged 12 to 17 from Eastern and Western Canada, with families of the participants hosting their child’s “twin” and the clubs organizing a sightseeing extravaganza of their region. 4-H Canada covers the airfare for the kids (save for a registration fee), screens host families, and facilitates the process to ensure the two visits (which are either seven or 10 days long) go as smoothly as possible.
“It’s amazing. The cost is just $150 per child — as a parent, you can’t say no to that,” said Hammond. “And 4-H Canada does all the booking of flights and organizes everything. It has conference calls for chaperons and can answer all of your questions.
Hammond and fellow chaperon Suzanne Kirby heard about the program four years ago and volunteered to handle the application from their district.
“The application form is quite extensive for both the host families and chaperons,” said Hammond. “It’s very doable but there’s a lot of information you have to put in and a lot of criteria has to be met before you’re eligible. Of course, that’s good because you’re sending your kid to a stranger’s house.”
Their first two applications ran into snags, then the exchange program went on hiatus for 2015, but finally “it all clicked” and the district was matched with a group of clubs located near St. John’s. The two groups (the Albertans came from three clubs) then got busy choosing sightseeing spots and activities, fundraising (the host group covers the costs of admissions and tickets, as well as local travel), and the critical job of matching up the kids.
“We Skyped a lot with the other chaperons and did a lot of texting and emailing to match up the kids — you go through ages and interests and pair everybody up,” said Hammond.
“You have a choice of seven or 10 days, and we chose a Saturday to a Saturday. I know most of the kids said that they were hesitant about it at first — you know, a little bit of nervousness about staying with someone you don’t know. But in the end, they wished that they had 10 days at both ends. It would have been nice to have more free time because our schedule was just packed.”
The Alberta leg included trips to the Calgary Stampede, Lundbreck Falls, a mine tour at Crowsnest Pass, Frank Slide, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and Waterton Lakes National Park.
“We actually went to Waterton twice,” said Hammond. “Once we hiked but you also have to do a community service, so we picked knapweed in the park. That was exciting because everybody saw their first black bear that day.
“Some of the kids went to Waterton on their evenings off and in the span of the week, they saw 13 bears if you can believe it. I don’t think I’ve seen 13 bears in my life.”
Seeing how the kids bonded and wanted more time just to hang out together, the Newfoundland hosts scaled back their itinerary, but it was still “a whirlwind,” and included visits to famous spots (Cape Spear Lighthouse, the Cabot Tower, and Signal Hill) and a chocolate factory as well as whale-watching, sea-kayaking, and zip-lining.
“It was amazing how much we did,” said Hammond. “They also had a lovely BBQ when we arrived and we got ‘screeched in.’ There was this very lively character speaking what I guess is Newfoundland-ese; you do a little chant wishing people well; kiss a cod; and then drink screech.”
The infamous Newfie rum was replaced with a non-alcoholic drink but “everybody kissed a fish,” she added.
Seeing another part of the country is fun, but that’s not what makes the exchange program a special thing, she said.
“You’re immersed in the community, you’re immersed in people’s lives, so you form these relationships that go much deeper than meeting each other for a few hours every day. Some of the kids are still keeping in touch and you know some are like, ‘If I ever go out that way or they come this way, we’ll get together.’
“And it won’t matter how many years have passed, they will reconnect and pick up where they left off. It’s that kind of bond.”
The deadline for applying for the 2017 edition of the program is Nov. 30. For details, go to 4-h-canada.ca.