Paying it Forward in January

“Pay it Forward” is an idea and an expression that is generating a lot of attention these days, as well as  many benevolent and often random acts of charity and kindness. The phrase was often used widely in the fields of banking and lending, but it has come to mean something very different in our modern parlance. The idea is fairly simple. When someone does a good deed that helps you, offers you a random act of kindness, or simply treats you with respect and does something that gives you a good feeling, you in turn do the same for a stranger rather than repaying the “debt”. In a sense, you carry that good deed to the next person, who will, hopefully, do the same for the next person.


The idea of paying it forward is spreading, too. Just this morning your humble correspondent opened his facebook page to find an invite to the Second Annual Pay it Forward Weekend, taking place from January 17 to January 19. A novel idea, I thought, because as much as we wish that people were benevolent, respectful, and courteous to one another everyday, sometimes there has to be an occasion for people to realize the value of an idea such as this. I signed on right away and hoped that my readers would as well.


Paying it forward does not require a grand charitable gesture, or the expenditure of large sums of money. It can and should be something simple. It should be something that makes one person feel good. That being said, I offer up the following anecdote as an example of paying it forward, and how a simple act of kindness can often mean a lot when it comes unexpectedly.


A few years ago I took a trip to Germany. I landed in Berlin with zero knowledge of the language, and only a cursory knowledge of the city. It was also my first visit to Europe, and when my feet hit the ground I existed in a state of mild panic that someone would figure out I was from the U.S. and make me pay for it somehow. The U.S. was losing the global popularity contest and I there was no way to hide my citizenship. I assumed that I felt the way our students feel when they land at the airport to be greeted by strangers, except no one was holding a sign heralding my arrival.


Berlin was a maze, the language was rapid-fired between people on sidewalks and in shops, and everything was written in a mishmosh of Roman letters I recognized, peppered with symbols I did not. On the first day, determined to begin my attempt at understanding my new surroundings, I strayed from my hotel to a Christmas market in Potsdamer Platz. Attracted by the sounds of music and the smells of roasting meat and hot wine I dove into the crowd, walking through the little stands full of candy and toys and crafts and listening to the strange and rigid sounds of the people coursing through the square. I felt like an outsider. I was amazed by the sights but I couldn’t be a part of them. Even the simple act of ordering a beverage seemed a monumental and potentially embarrassing task.


An older gentlemen must have noticed me staring into the depths of a stand selling bratwurst and mulled wine with a pained look on my face because he approached me and asked in English if needed help. I remember an immense feeling of relief at hearing another person speak my native language, and he must have seen it because a smile crossed his face. I explained that I had been in the country for eighteen hours with nothing to eat. Everything being sold at the stands looked delicious but I was too apprehensive to ask for any of it because I didn’t speak any German.


Without another word he walked up to the stand and ordered a few items. When I tried to pay he waved me off and asked me instead to find a table we could share in the plaza. As we ate he explained a few German words to help me get around, told me what it was we were eating, and asked me about my travels. For the twenty or so minutes I spent with the man he told me about German customs, explained where I could find people who spoke English if there was an emergency, and recommended different parts of the city for me to visit. He also told me that when he was a student he had visited Greece and woman in Athens had shown him kindness by buying him a coffee and telling him how to get around. He told me not to worry. Everyone is a stranger at one point or another. His countrymen were human beings. They would understand.


When we finished he handed me a small, creased subway map, shook my hand and welcomed me to Germany. Then he turned and folded back into the crowd. It was a strange and comforting encounter. With my hunger abated and a renewed sense of determination I left Potsdamer Platz and headed into the city. The man’s small act of kindness was enough to make me feel welcome, and as I walked through the squares I reminded myself to keep an open mind and try to learn as much as possible.


The rest of my trip was remarkable. I quickly learned how to get around on the Metro, bought armloads of gifts for my friends and family back home, and visited places I had only previously seen on television and the internet. It may sound strange, but the kindness shown to me by the man at the market gave me the confidence to try, and without that it would have been a very different trip.


That is what paying it forward it all about. One seemingly small gesture had changed the way I thought about Berlin in a profound way. It had changed my entire experience. The man at the market owed me nothing, but he remembered a time when he was young and in a new place and a stranger had offered him help.


What you may not realize is that these kinds of stories happen daily, and each new day is an opportunity. I encourage all of my readers to pay it forward this January. Find a way to make someone you don’t know believe that there are good people in the world, and maybe on day they will have the chance to prove it, too.


Because ISE loves to hear about and share in the accomplishments of our students, we are sponsoring a Pay it Forward contest of sorts. If you do something unique for a random stranger or if you think that we would love to hear about your Pay it Forward Weekend, visit the ISE twitter page and tell us about it. You could win a free piece of swag from the famous ISE Swag Bag. We cannot wait to hear your stories.


For more information about Pay it Forward Weekend, please click here.

ISE Student Takes Community Service to a Whole New Level

Brazilian exchange student, Ana, came to the U.S. to experience a new culture and to refine her English language skills. She was placed with the Spencer family in Longmont, CO, and settled into her new life with relative ease.


“My host family is amazing,” Ana stated. “I have never had a brother before, so it’s great.”


Shortly after her arrival, Ana heard news that a major rain storm was coming. Thinking at first that the storm was no big deal, Ana went to bed like it was any other night. She never could have imagined what would happen next. When she awoke the next morning, her Twitter timeline was buzzing with messages describing wreckage and devastation from a flood. She quickly went to the TV and saw with her own eyes what was happening outside.


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“I was on a hill, so I wasn’t worried about my house. I did walk down to see the flooding. I was shocked to see the roads covered with water and the bridges destroyed.”


The floods had damaged over 20,000 homes and destroyed roads, bridges and business. The devastation was intense, but Ana didn’t do much for the next few days. School was cancelled, so she just spent time with a few friends. Soon, people that she knew began to be evacuated, and more and more people from Brazil contacted her to make sure she was ok. She assured them that everything was fine and that she was safe in her home.  After a few days, she decided that it was time to do something.


Flood 1


On day three Ana woke up and decided to get to work. She had volunteered in Brazil in the past and she realized that her community needed her.


“I asked myself, ‘Why should I sit in my bedroom if I could be out doing something?’ I told my host mom that I wanted to help.”


Flood 3


Ana’s host mother called a friend that was involved in the community. Her friend directed Ana to the mall where people could sign up to volunteer. Ana jumped in immediately. That day Ana was assigned to take supply orders for FEMA. She had never heard of FEMA before; there was nothing like it in Brazil. She wound up working over four hours that first day.


“After the first day, I thought I was really helping people. It made me want to go back to help again.”


On the second day, Ana was assigned to work at the warehouse. Her responsibilities were to gather supplies and help people get specific items in the “market”. She assisted families in deciding what they would need to get by for the upcoming week. In everything she did she felt a sense of accomplishment. It felt good to help. At one point, she met a man that didn’t want anything. He was living in his car because his house was destroyed. Even though he had lost everything, he didn’t want to take much from the people who needed it more than he.


“It made me feel so grateful about the everything I have and the host family I live with. People are so nice in this country. It was amazing to see someone left with nothing, but yet still was thinking of his fellow community.”


Ana went back for a third day, enjoying the volunteer work and the help that she was able to offer to people. She is planning on joining a club or even starting one that would focus on relief for those who have lost their homes. Things are beginning to get to normal in Longmont, but there is still a lot of work to be done.


“After this experience, it taught me to be thankful for what you have. Sometime you don’t even notice your small things might be big things to other people.”


Exchange Students Give Thanks to the Red Cross

Exchange Students from International Student Exchange’s Smokey Mountain Region (Tennessee and Kentucky) met on a warm spring day in April to show their appreciation for one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, the American Red Cross.


By washing vehicles, planting flowers, and landscaping the grounds of the Red Cross facility in Tennessee, students aimed to give back to the Red Cross organization, which works during times of international crises to bring care to injured soldiers, feed the hungry, and coordinate one of the largest blood banks in the world. It was a moment of international solidarity for both organizations, and though the two groups share a somewhat different approach to volunteerism, both groups firmly belief in service and outreach, ideals which serve not only the locality, but the public at large, setting an example for the global community.

AmRedCross11The international students and the members of the Red Cross share a kinship in that they are both dedicated to service. The American Red Cross, formed in 1881, has been at the forefront of volunteerism and service to those in need for over 100 years, bringing medicine, food, and care to people around the world, while the students from ISE have taken the initiative to participate in Project H.E.L.P., a volunteer group associated with their visa sponsor that works with local and international organizations to coordinate service projects around the country.

AmRedCross5In addition to offering a simple “sprucing up” to the Red Cross facility in Tennessee, ISE’s Project H.E.L.P. has worked with the victims of hurricane Katrina, aided in cleanups from national disasters, and volunteered to assist children at St. Jude’s Hospital, just to name a few of the more expansive projects.



Food Drive in Utah

Kristene Baldwin of Utah recently invited a group of ISE exchange students to take part in a  food bank. This allows for our exchange students to understand the importance of community service and helping others. We are very proud of the positive contributions that our exchange students make every year. Congratulations to Kristene!



The Positive Impact of Exchange Students in New Hampshire

One of ISE’s area representatives has discovered that exchange students are a source of inspiration, positivity, and joy. In her house she mantains an “Exchange Wall,” where her students imprint their handprints to mark their arrival, stay, and departure. It is a wonderful experience to share and unite students from around the world, as well as Americans that host the exchange students. She has found that exchange students have expanded her cultural horizons and have changed the way she views the world. Here is a letter she wrote, followed by pictures of her students in Boston, MA recently.

Dear ISE,

I’m a matchmaker by nature and a people person. Working for ISE has helped me to become more outgoing and broadened my cultural horizons. I love getting to know families and sharing the year’s experiences with them. Finding just the right student for a family brings a lot of joy and then having that family ask me to help them choose their next student is a lot of fun. At the same time, I have seen students grow and mature throughout the year, gaining a self confidence and awareness that will follow them throughout life.

On my kitchen wall are the handprints of many exchange students. Each one is precious to me and carries memories of those kids.

The latest addition to my wall is Aleksandar Radovanovic from Montenegro. I find all the kids enjoy my little collection . We also enjoy going on little field trips together such as going to Boston for a day. 

Kris Matthieu

Exchange Student Joins Community Outreach Program, Helps Feed the Homeless

St. John the Evangelist faith formation program promotes outreach, advocacy and awareness

GREEN BAY — When teens choose to get up at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday to provide service, they must believe in the cause. That was the case at St. John the Evangelist Church on Feb. 24. Members of the high school faith formation program and adult volunteers prepared a hot breakfast for residents at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter.

“It’s worth getting up,” said Jolee Hansen, a sophomore at Preble High School. “I love being able to help out the homeless. I think that everyone who helps them out is fantastic. I don’t like seeing people homeless. I’m glad we have a shelter.” “We are grateful for all our meal volunteers do for our guests seeking shelter from the cold winter months,” said Mike Westenberg, who coordinates the meal program at the shelter. “The love and concerns for our guests they pour into each meal is obvious to our staff, volunteers and nightly guests. It is a vital part of the ministry we share in as we all seek to care for our brothers and sisters.”


Amanda Miranda moves French toast from the griddle to a pan held by volunteer Lou Stoller at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter on Feb. 24. Providing breakfast for shelter residents is one of several outreach efforts by high school faith formation students at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Green Bay. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

Large containers of bacon and French toast were transported next door from the parish kitchen. The shelter’s kitchen is not licensed for cooking food for the guests. Church and school groups, organizations, co-workers and families fill most of the dinner schedule.

Notre Dame School, De Pere, for example, provides meals every other Monday. Most days, only cold foods are available to shelter residents in the morning, so the St. John the Evangelist faith formation group chose breakfast. They will return to serve pancakes in three weeks.

Funds to purchase the breakfast items were collected through the “Souper Bowl of Caring,” a nationwide, youth-led effort, which encourages people to make donations at worship services on the weekend of the Super Bowl.

“We let the parish know in advance that we would be doing this kettle campaign at each Mass,” explained Ron Renquin, a volunteer with the faith formation program. “The kids speak from the pulpit so it gives them an opportunity in front of the people and for the congregation to see who they are.”

Renquin and Helen Wellens are both in their sixth year working with the high school students. Jolene Hunkins and her daughter, Bridget Hunkins, a former student in the program, also serve as volunteer leaders. Catholic social teaching is a focus with the young people.

“It’s much more than preparing a meal,” said Renquin. “It’s understanding, it’s advocacy, being aware of what is happening within your city. How does your city view homelessness from different perspectives? Open your eyes when you go to school. How many kids at your school are living out of the backseats of cars?”

The goal is to reach the students so they apply what they learn at Wednesday evening faith formation sessions to their everyday lives, he added.

“All of a sudden, they start noticing people on the buses,” he said. “They notice people in the library and the homeless people walking downtown. That means that they don’t look away, but share a smile or say hello. It may be the best thing that happened to that person the entire day. How can we make a difference?”

Additional outreach efforts also allow the teens to live out their faith. The students organized a stone soup meal for the parish. Suggested ingredients were written on stones and placed in baskets near the church doors. Parish members grabbed a stone and returned the ingredient.

“We generally not only get more than enough ingredients to make the soup, we usually get enough to make sandwiches and various other things to go with it,” said Renquin. “It becomes a community building situation.”

“Fill a Pantry Shelf,” a collection for Paul’s Pantry is under way. Students will not only deliver the food, but spend a Saturday working at the pantry.

“Everyone goes their different directions (at the pantry) and at some point we meet up,” said Renquin. “We go for pizza afterwards. We use it as a wrap. Everyone gets to share what they did that day and what they learned from the day.”

The teens also ring bells for the Salvation Army during the holiday season and will spend a Saturday shopping for items needed at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter.

Amanda Miranda, an exchange student from Brazil who is a senior at Preble High school, has participated in the faith formation program, including the service projects. She attended church services with her mother in her homeland, but was not previously involved in community outreach.

“Here, it is really different for me,” she said. “I like the generosity of people giving to those who don’t have the same things they have in their lives.”

Miranda is 18, so she was able to serve breakfast at the shelter.

“The people were so appreciative,” she said. “They made a point of coming back and thanking us.”

“I wish I was 18, so I could help out, but at least I know that I’m doing my part by making the food,” said Hansen, Miranda’s host sister. “Last week, I heard about the death of someone from hypothermia. That is really sad. It really touches the heart when you see people in need and you know that you are helping them out.”

For more information about St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, go to Those interested in providing a meal at the shelter may contact Mike Westenberg at

*** This article was originally written by Jeff Kurowski in The Compass, Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Catholic Diocese newspaper.***

International Student Exchange and Global Youth Service Day

The title St. Jude has become synonymous with advancing medical treatment for childhood illnesses ranging from cancers and viruses to genetic diseases and birth defects. The hospital’s contributions to the advancement of disease treatment and research has been invaluable in helping sick children the world over, and giving parents and their families hope when battling life threatening illnesses. Recognized internationally for its magnanimous efforts, the hospital relies mainly on donations and sponsorship in order to fund their research and treatment programs, and thanks to generous supporters has been able to deliver quality medical care since 1962.

St-Jude's-and-ISE (6)

In order to lend support to this benevolent establishment, Area Representatives from the ISE Delta Region and managers from our headquarters in New York met this weekend in Tennessee at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Handing out gifts and donations collected by our foreign exchange students and representatives, the team earned a lot of smiles and gratitude from the children undergoing treatment at the hospital, and left with a lasting impression that has inspired them to do even more in the coming weeks.

St-Jude's-and-ISE (4)

That may be the reason why this coming April, International Student Exchange, in partnerships with organizations all over the country, will participate in Global Youth Service Day, a weekend-long event that inspires young people in the United States to volunteer for worthy causes and give back to their communities. At the epicenter of this initiative is the staying feeling of satisfaction experienced by the Delta team this past weekend.

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“This was a fantastic opportunity to give back to kids and to support a worthy cause. The students and the reps both enjoyed themselves, and the parents and children at St. Jude’s could not have been more gracious and thankful. It was a really good feeling,” says Exchange Program Manager, Gary Lubrat.

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The coming GYSD will for ISE include activities such as fund raisers, community outreach, volunteerism, and community service initiatives, all of which are intended to show the nation what our foreign guests think of the American communities that have opened their homes to the Exchange Visitor Program.


“The goal,” says Lubrat, “is not only to say thank you to the American families that welcome our students into their lives, but to show the community at large that volunteerism and service should be at the forefront of everyone’s life. This event is a chance to show everyone how it’s done. Once we got involved at St. Jude’s, the team began thinking up a lot of other organizations we could work with, and the idea simply snowballed.”

Part of the International Student Exchange visitor program requires all visiting students to complete five hours of community service while in the United States, but as the headquarters reports, most students will complete many more hours during their stay. Thanks to GYSD, many students will easily complete double their required hours or more, bringing the total to somewhere around 42,000 service hours in this season alone.

International German Student Takes the Plunge for the Special Olympics

International Student Exchange has long been a supporter of volunteerism and efforts to strengthen communities through service. With the implementation of Project H.E.L.P., ISE has been able to serve both large scale causes, such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief effort, to small yet important community outreach programs, such as food pantries and soup kitchens. Some students have even taken the initiative to go out into the community shoveling snow or raking leaves for their neighbors, a task which might not make a global impact, but does improve someone’s quality of life and put a smile on his or her face.

As a requirement for ISE’s exchange program, each student must complete a minimum of five hours of community service while visiting the United States. While that may not seem like much, five hours can make a huge difference in someone else’s life, and the fact is that most students choose to do much, much more. These hours are often completed in between juggling sports competitions, homework, studying, family events, and standardized testing, each student giving as much as they can with the experience and time they have.

Recently one of ISE’s students went above and beyond the requirements of his program to raise money for a national organization known as the Special Olympics, which helps athletes with disabilities realize their dreams by organizing some of the largest coordinated sporting events in the country. Participating in Kansas’s statewide Polar Plunge, an event that promotes and raises funds for the Kansas Special Olympics, exchange student Martin Honscha from Germany was able to raise a seventy five dollar donation that was gladly handed over to the organization.

Working in conjunction with other students from Haysville High School in Kansas, Martin and several others (shown in the photos below) took the plunge to help keep this great event going.

Honscha has been in country now for several months and is quite happy to be attending school in Kansas and making American friends. ISE thanks, Honscha and the New Frontier region for all their hard work and dedication both to the exchange program and to the Kansas Special Olympics. Good luck in the coming months!

Exchange Students Reach Out in Gemstone

International Student Exchange’s Gemstone region is an area encompassing the larger part of South Dakota and southern North Dakota, and home to about thirty to forty ISE exchange students every season. While they may not be the largest region in the U.S., they definitely fulfill a “larger-than-life” role when it comes to giving back to their community.

Every year for the holiday season, ISE Regional Mananger, Marybeth “Pebbles” Whiddon and her Representative, Barbara Hoyles, in cooperation with Our Saviors Lutheran Church coordinate a food drive that hands out food baskets and supplies to families in need. This year many students came to show thier support and give back to the community that has opened up its homes to the exchange program.

The students worked very hard to help the food bank with its donations this year, and have ensured that a few more families will be able to enjoy the holiday this year.

Thanks to the Gemstone region, Our Savior Lutheran Church, and to the ISE students who helped make this possible!

Northwest Students Build Homes for Those in Need

Exchange students from ISE’s Northwest region came together on October 13th to give back to their community by helping the famed Habitat for Humanity build homes for Washington residents in need. The students admitted that althougth it was hard work, it was fun and rewarding and motivated each one of them in their efforts to assist their American neighbors and establish an identity in their community.


“It was good for the kids,” says representative Sharon Burns, who is always looking for ways to show her community what her brilliant and energetic students are capable of. “The [students] got to meet new friends and experience what it means to give back.”

The work completed on the 13th consisted mostly of weatherproofing the new building’s seams and foundation with watertight caulk, an important step in building any new structure in the Northwest. As the photos show, some of the students also participated in helping to lay the groundwork for a new driveway leading to the newly built homes.IMG_0037IMG_0054

Habitat for Humanity has plans to build enough homes on this plot to eventually house twenty families, and though the students were a bit worn out by day’s end, each said they were looking forward to returning for the winter session to help compelte the interior work planned in the next phase of construction.IMG_0045