By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
---- — The Cooperstown Rotary club is working to find veterans of its Rotary International Youth Exchange Program, which has been sending students abroad for nearly 50 years.
“There's over 200 kids that have either gone (from) or been here,” said Doug Geertgens, who heads the youth exchange program at the Cooperstown Rotary Club. “We're trying to track down as many of those as we can.”
Rotary Club District 7170, which Cooperstown is a part of, is celebrating 50 years of having a youth exchange. The program gives students the opportunity to spend nearly a year going to school and living in another country. Cooperstown started its youth exchange program in 1965, one year after the program started in the district.
“I think there's an appreciation for travel, there's an appreciation for broadening one's horizons,” said Geertgens.
Geertgens said the program begins in September with applications and interviews. The applicants who make it through the local interview are then interviewed at the district level in November. Students accepted into the program are notified in December. Orientation workshops take place in the spring.
In July or August students leave for their host countries, and spend 10 to 11 months living with host families, going to school and being immersed in the culture of the country they are visiting. Students from other countries also stay in Cooperstown on their youth exchange as well. Geertgens said that the costs that program participants must cover are their plane fares, a health insurance policy and incidental expenses, such as clothing and eating out.
“It's a great program. If you're interested in it, by all means apply,” said Geertgens.
Geertgens said that about 130 students have gone on exchange from Cooperstown, while 82 international students have stayed in Cooperstown.
Geertgens said that Rotary District 7170's district governor this year, Tim Overbaugh, has been very involved in the youth exchange program. He said that this motivated Overbaugh to organize a celebration of the 50th anniversary as part of this year's district conference. The conference will take place at Greek Peak from June 13 to 15.
As part of the anniversary celebration, an effort is being made to contact as many alumni as possible.
“That's one of the goals, to have as many that can attend,” said Geertgens.
Geertgens also said that if enough people who have been involved in the Cooperstown program come, a special program may be held for the Cooperstown alumni, either before or after the conference.
“This would be here in Cooperstown,” said Geertgens. "If we have enough people coming back who will be in town.”
Geertgens said that the club is reaching out to both alumni and those who might know where to find them.
“Anybody who has knowledge of these people … contact Jeff Katz,” said Geertgens. He also made a special note of asking for the whereabouts of international students who did their exchange in Cooperstown.
He also noted that alumni can go to the reunion's website and sign up with their information. The site is www.dist7170yep.com.
Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz is also the president of the Cooperstown Rotary Club, his one year term as president finishing at the end of June.
“It's a fluke that I'm rotary president while I'm mayor,” said Katz.
While Katz said that he has just started the outreach process, he said that he was focusing primarily on the students that were sent out from Cooperstown, as opposed to the international students. He said that he believes the international students will be less likely to be able to visit.
Katz said it was too early to tell if there will be enough alumni for a local event. A decision will need to be made in May. He did note, however, that there are still youth exchange alumni living in and around Cooperstown.
“There's a decent amount of people who are still in the area,” said Katz.
Katz noted that Cooperstown Middle/High School Music Teacher Timothy Iversen went on a youth exchange to Australia, Chris Grady of Stagecoach Coffee went on an exchange to Peru and Mary Livermore, who became involved with rotary as an adult, went on an exchange to Japan.
Katz's middle son, Robbie, went on an exchange in Brazil from August 2011 to May 2012.
“He had a phenomenal year,” said Katz. “It really does become a massive growth experience.”
Whether or not there is a Cooperstown reunion, Geertgens said that the goal of the anniversary is to reconnect people who have been involved District 7170's youth exchange program over its half-century of existence.
“Whatever comes from that point on, that'll be gravy,” said Geertgens.
Geertgens says that he has been involved with the youth exchange program for about 10 years, although neither he nor Katz participated in rotary in their youths.
“I've just enjoyed the opportunity to continue to have the contact with the students and to see the wonderful things that they do,” said Geertgens, a former principal of Cooperstown Elementary School.
He also said that the program is a bonding experience for those who go on the exchanges.
“It's a family. It's just no question, it's a family,” said Geertgens.