“We were waiting at the airport and the kids were all excited. But even though we had a big sign welcoming them, they were looking for their luggage and kind of walked by us. But when we got off the plane (in Nova Scotia four weeks later) and walked through the airport doors, everyone was hugging each other and there was laughing and joking. It was just like welcoming your family back.”
For Karyn Salsbury, those two contrasting scenes capture what 4-H Canada’s Club to Club Exchange is all about.
“It really is the people,” said the Lacombe 4-H leader. “When we were having our wrap-up and asking the kids about their big take-away, it all came down to the people. That’s really what the kids valued, it was the experiences with the people.”
Of course, those experiences were set against some pretty stunning backdrops — including the hoodoos of Alberta’s Badlands, majestic vistas from atop Sulphur Mountain, and up-and-close cowboy time at the Ponoka Stampede.
And that was just the Alberta half of the exchange, which saw 11 4-H members and two chaperones travel from Cape Breton at the start of the summer and then return the hospitality of their hosts (10 members of the Lacombe club and chaperones Salsbury and Darryl Langille) four weeks later.
The journey Down East featured a trip to the Cabot Trail, some seriously big waves on a whale-watching excursion, and a host of activities ranging from horseback riding and fishing to visiting historic sites and learning how to dance a jig and a reel.
Memories of those sights and sounds will stay with the 21 4-H’ers for the rest of their lives, but it’s the bonding with total strangers that stay with you, said Salsbury.
And she speaks from experience. Nearly 30 years ago, she participated in a very similar program (then called Open House Canada) and travelled to the Annapolis Valley on the other side of Nova Scotia.
“It was wonderful and in fact I’m still in contact with my host family and my ‘twins,’” she said. “I still consider them my Nova Scotia family even though I haven’t been back there since and wasn’t able to go visit them this time around.”
In fact, this summer’s trip had its genesis in Salsbury’s 1988 exchange. After chatting with fellow leader Langille about her experience, the two wondered if there was anything like Open House Canada still on offer.
Sure enough there was and that led to this summer’s adventure.
The program pairs groups of kids (usually eight to 10 in each group) aged 12 to 17 from Eastern and Western Canada, with families of the participants hosting their child’s ‘twin.’ The clubs organize 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.
Each club has to cover the cost of events and sightseeing (including tour buses if needed). In this case, that was about $10,000 for each club.
“It was surprising but once we put it out there that we were looking for ways to fundraise, there were great opportunities that came our way,” said Salsbury. “It was easier than we thought it was going to be.”
For example, a group of local fiddlers offered the Lacombe club a chance to run its concessions during an anniversary event this summer. That brought in $1,200 and a Mother’s Day plant sale brought in a few thousand more. Other organizations and businesses stepped up with donations (such as free rodeo tickets) or support.
But then again, some of the best activities came with no cost at all.
“I asked, ‘What was your favourite?’ and they had difficulty answering because they had so many great experiences,” said Langille. “But as a leader, I’ve found some of their highlights were the unplanned moments.
“In the Badlands, we had some free time and the kids climbed up and down the river valley hills. In Cape Breton, their time at the beach was probably their highlight. It was just that time to be together and have fun.”
Salsbury has a couple of pieces of advice for those considering participating in the program.
First, understand it’s “a whole family commitment.”
“It’s not just the leaders or the one family member. They should know that coming out of the gate.”
Secondly, don’t fret too much about hosting, said Salsbury, who had two children in the exchange program and so hosted two Cape Breton 4-H’ers and one chaperone.
“It was me who worried more than them for sure,” she said. “They don’t care if the grass is mowed or there’s weeds in my flower bed — that’s just a me thing.”
Langille is equally enthusiastic.
“The first thing I would say is, ‘Don’t hesitate — it’s a great program,’” he said. “The work involved — and there’s many hours to get there — is just so worth it. We just had such a positive experience and I know it will be the highlight of these kids’ 4-H careers.
“People can travel throughout their lives but they will never have this kind of personal experience where they’re billeted and live and travel like a group like this. We just had a tremendous time and we’d do it again.”
For more information, go to the 4-H Canada website. The application deadline for the 2018 edition of the program is Jan. 15.
Do you want to join 4-H? Register online
4-H registration is open until the end of November.
Leaders can register their clubs and all their members and volunteer leaders at www.4h.ab.ca. Those looking to join a club or who need help registering their club, can reach a 4-H specialist at 780-422-4H4H (4444).
There are approximately 350 4-H clubs in Alberta with more than 5,500 members and 2,000 volunteer leaders.