By Erika Webb
When Mark and Tracy Ginnen's 14-year-old daughter, Taylor, asked them if she could move to Russia, their answer was a resounding "absolutely not!"
Some parents are so unreasonable.
That was three years ago, but now Taylor is touring southern Russia, along the Black Sea, most likely bundled up like never before.
"When Taylor convinced us, we went to her guidance counselor to find out what year of her schooling would be the best to go," Ms. Grinnen said. "Taylor doubled her classes, taking some online and some at her school, University High. She graduated a year early and went to Russia."
She said the convincing process did not take long.
"We went to the informational program and we were sold," Ms. Grinnen said.
She said Taylor searched Google looking for exchange programs and determined that Rotary International offered the best one.
"Their program is 80 years old," Ms. Grinnen said.
Rotary board member Diane Smith, who is also a member of the Volusia County School Board, said the Four Townes Rotary Club has sponsored Rotary Youth Exchange outbound students for the last two years.
"When Taylor approached us about sponsoring her, we jumped at the chance to make this opportunity a reality for her. A few months ago, Taylor's mom asked us if we would be interested in sponsoring an in-bound student as well. The Grinnens wanted to give a student from another country the same opportunity to live with a host family as Taylor had," Ms. Smith said.
Ms. Grinnen said Lena Schmid, who is from Kalletal, Germany, has been in their home since August. She said Lena studied English for seven years before coming to the United States, but that she never used the language outside of the classroom.
Lena, a junior at University High School in Orange City, is on the swim team and is a member of Interact Rotary Club for high school students. But, Ms. Grinnen said, Lena has faced some challenges making new friends.
"Their school system is different in Germany. They stay in the same class and the teachers change," she said. "It's harder to make friends here because they're constantly switching classes."
Overall, though, Lena has adjusted well.
"She's staying active," Ms. Grinnen said. "She is teaching us about Germany as she is learning about our American culture."
Ms. Grinnen said Taylor trained for a year before leaving for Russia.
"Rotary prepares them, teaches them about culture shock, being homesick and what to expect," she said.
Russia was Taylor's first choice of the five potential host countries she was allowed to select. When she found out, last December, she would be in Russia by August, Taylor began learning everything she could about her destination.
"She wanted to learn a language with a different alphabet," Ms. Grinnen said. "She didn't know a whole lot about Russia so she was up for the challenge. She's a brave girl."
Though Taylor graduated from University High, she is spending this gap year attending high school in Velikiy Novgorod.
Ms. Smith explained the goal of the Rotary Youth Exchange program is to build goodwill between countries through the students' positive experiences in their respective host countries.
She said while they are expected to attend school in their host countries, credits are usually not transferrable.
Ms. Grinnen said she only gets to communicate with her daughter about once every three weeks.
"They say to keep contact as minimal as possible, so she's not writing or speaking in English, so she's not thinking about me," Ms. Grinnen said. "The goal is complete immersion in the new culture and surroundings. A successful exchange is when she's not reaching out to me."
But Taylor's mom has ascertained two things.
"She's gonna freeze," she said, laughing.
And, she said, though Taylor might not like them all, she enjoys trying new foods in her host country.
So while Taylor works to embrace the culinary attributes of borshch, Lena has met peanut butter.
"Lena wants to like peanut butter. She's never tried it before," Ms. Grinnen said. "She likes boiled peanuts."
Taylor's education will not be completed when she returns to the United States. In fact, she's only just begun.
"She wants to continue studying the Russian language and she's considering studying International Relations and Political Science," Ms. Grinnen said. "She's applying to many colleges, both in Florida and out. I'm hoping she goes to Stetson."
The Grinnens are finding out that "teenager" is a universal language.
"Basically they're the same, no matter what country they're from. They're still basically teenagers," Ms. Grinnen said. "In fact Lena is a lot like Taylor."
Ms. Smith said while in-bound students are here they have the opportunity to travel with Rotary, and with their host families.
"We strive to share experiences that make our communities special and unique -- Blue Springs Park, the Volusia County Fair, the Space Center and other area attractions," Ms. Smith said.
She said Four Townes Rotary is committed to community and youth programs.
"Our students are our future leaders and we want them to have all the resources possible to be strong and ethical leaders," Ms. Smith said. "Rotary offers several leadership opportunities for our youth and our club has sponsored students to all of these conferences and events over the past few years."
The Grinnens are looking forward to students from Hungary, Ecuador, Turkey, Finland and Russia -- living with host families in St. Augustine -- spending the weekend with them, Lena and the Grinnen's 12-year-old daughter, Kimberly.
"Kimberly is just thrilled about the students coming this weekend," Ms. Grinnen said. "She saw the experience Taylor had, is having and she sees Lena. She actually may be interested in going to one of the Asian countries."
A trip to Blue Springs State Park, "to see the manatees," is part of the plans.
Ms. Grinnen said Lena will join a different host family, in DeBary, in late December.
"She's changed our lives," she said. "It's an amazing program."