Students participating in the Lions Club International Youth Exchange program in Panora this month are (front, from left) David Alejandro Diez Martinez and Cem Bartu Armutlu and (back) Sofie Kofod, Clivia Boulet and Andrea Svanborg. The Youth  Camp and Exchange program is composed of various Lions Youth Exchanges and arranged by Lions clubs around the world.

Panora host to five exchange students through local Lions Club

Five international exchange students gather around the table with members of their host families while visiting and sharing slices of watermelon on a hot July evening. 

“The captain here, we went on his boat and he introduced us to his friends and family,” said David Alejandro Diez Martinez, a 15-year-old from Mexico who is staying at the home of Billy and Emily Donovan at Lake Panorama in Panora. “He showed us a thing called a lily pad. We went Kayaking. They live a lot of time on the water.” 

They share stories about Casey’s pizza, walking Tacos and fruit loops. 

“We were expecting fast food,” said 19-year-old Andrea Svanborg of Denmark. “America seems like McDonalds we think, but happy with the food they make.” 

The students, including two from Denmark, one from Turkey, Mexico and France, are spending four weeks in Panora this month through the Lions International Youth Camp and Exchange Program (YCE). 

Each year the program gives thousands of young people the opportunity to experience life in other cultures and gain new understanding of the world through travel abroad. 

Unlike some youth exchange programs, YCE does not involve academic study or employment. Instead, participants are encouraged to use the travel opportunity to represent their home countries and share their own cultures while learning about and embracing a new one, forging the way to becoming young ambassadors for peace and international understanding. 

Tamara Deal, president of the Panora Lions Club, helped organize the short exchange and reached out to other host families in the area. Deal is hosting Sofie Kofod of Denmark and Clivia Boulet of France. The girls are also spending some time at the Mark and Renee Everhart home. The Donovans, including daughter Natalie, 12, and son Dylan, 10, are hosting David Alejandro Diez Martinez, 15, from Mexico and Cem Bartu Armutlu, 17, of Turkey. Andrea Svanborg, 19, of Denmark is staying with Nancy and Tim Holloway. 

“This is really nice for families who might be thinking about hosting a (year-long) exchange student,” Deal said. “It’s three weeks, so you can give it a try and see how it works.” 

Twenty students are part of the program this summer, and Deal said it’s unique that Panora was able to host five of them. Oftentimes they visit larger cities, with several in the Cedar Rapids area on this trip, she said.  

“The Lions try really hard to get a good fit so everybody can have a good experience,” Deal said.  

The students stay with their host families for two weeks, spend a week at a youth camp held at the Iowa 4-H Center near Boone, then a final week with their host families. During the camp, the students spend a lot of time cross-sharing as they each give presentations on their countries. They also go canoeing, visit Adventureland and attend a couple shows in Des Moines. 

Billy Donovan said he was a bit nervous about hosting one exchange student, let alone two, but says the experience has been a joy for his family. 

“We have two good boys at our house,” he said. “They are good with our kids which is really great.” 

The Donovan children have enjoyed learning the different languages and listening to their mother, who is bilingual, communicate with their guests. 

“They like to talk back and forth and ask what words mean in Turkey?” Billy Donovan said of his children, who are eager to learn. 

Dylan has taught them how to play Fortnite, a popular video game where players fight off zombie-like characters and defend objects with fortifications they can build. They have golfed and plan to play some basketball. 

“The culture is very different,” Armutlu said. 

He doesn’t understand why people don’t always lock their doors and why they don’t wear socks and shoes in their homes. 

“We went to the conference center and they didn’t want a refill of their drink because they didn’t want to pay for it,” Billy Donovan said. “We told them they get free refills.” So the boys had 10 more drinks. 

Svanborg said she enjoys the opportunity to get to know the culture better, meet new people and improve her language. 

“I don’t know if I’m better, but I think I sound more American now,” she said. “I think my Danish accent was thicker, but now it’s better.” 

Svanborg, who began learning English at the age of 9, said sometimes she finds herself knowing the English word and not remembering what the Danish word is. 

Boulet, who is visiting from  France, has had to work hard on her English here. 

“France people not good English,” she said, noting she’s pleased with her improvement. 

“You don’t realize how much slang we use,” Deal said. “I told her I was running to the store, but I don’t actually run.” 

The students have enjoyed several trips with their host families, including visits to the Neil Smith Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, the Omaha Zoo and Living History Farms. A trip to the National Balloon Classic in Indianola and an Iowa Cubs baseball game are on the calendar. 

Experiencing everyday life with their host families has given each of them a full understanding of the way people live here. 

“I come from a big city, so it’s nice here, very peaceful,” Martinez said “The parents get to play with their kids, it’s quite unique.” 

He said in his country parents return to their houses at night. 

“To be truly happy you have to have time to yourselves and be with those you love the most,” he said. “It’s very nice here.”  

Martinez comes from a big family, but many of them live in different countries. 

“My father is a doctor, and my mother is also a doctor, but she stays at home,” he said. 

Armutlu has enjoyed experiencing what he calls “private houses.” 

“I like the private houses, I can buy land and have my private house someday,” he said. He’s also enjoyed the communication between people and their dogs. 

“I made big improvements with pets,” he said, noting he’s used to running from dogs in his country of Turkey. 

Svanborg, who plans to study American Studies in college, said she’s enjoyed learning more and more about the United States. 

“The U.S. is very well known, so I think it’s nice to get a better understanding of how it is here and the differences from my own country,” she said. 

Svanborg, who did a week-long exchange in Kentucky, said her friends back home go crazy over the idea of Walmart. 

“I have a friend who wanted me to film a walk around in Walmart, that’s a big thing,” she said. 

While the students learn a lot during their exchange, the host families all agreed the experience is equally wonderful for them. 

“It’s neat to see our country through fresh eyes,” Donovan said.

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