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The Greatest Exchange

Young Kazakh students visit Ponte Vedra for second summer of Nocatee cultural exchange program.

Carrie Resch (The Recorder)

Published August 20, 2015

A group of students from Kazakhstan finished up their summer stay in America last week, marking the second summer in a row where Kazakh students came to Ponte Vedra to work as camp counselors as part of an informal cultural exchange paper

The group of four women are studying to be teachers at a university in Kazakhstan — the world’s ninth largest nation that shares borders with Russia and China. They arrived in the U.S. on May 29.

The cultural exchange program was conceived by Kelly Ray, director of marketing for the PARC Group.

“I lived in Kazakhstan about three years ago for a period of six months,” Ray said. While she lived there, she worked at a university, made a lot of friends, really got to know the culture and met a lot of phenomenal people, she said.

“Coming back to America, one of the things that always really bothered me is that when you’re visiting other cultures it’s just kind of a revolving door mentality – you just come in and you leave. And it was just a great experience, but those people that we built relationships with and what we learned about the culture, that was a one-time experience — it really didn’t play into the life that we have here,” Ray said.

The following year, Ray returned to Kazakhstan for a short trip, and through mutual friends, she was introduced to Aigul Zhumasheva.

kz5Zhumasheva was one of two women who came to the states last summer to work as camp counselors for Nocatee’s summer camp program.

“I’m really grateful that I have the connection with Nocatee, being of the director of marketing — to be able to make that connection — and they’ve been so wonderful to both Aigul and Aisulu (the other counselor from last year), and then the new girls this year,” Ray said.

After the Kazakh students returned home last year, people began asking Ray how they could help raise money to keep the program going. In November 2014, Ray launched The Greatest Exchange, a non-profit organization designed to do just that.

Zhumasheva, 27, returned this year to help coordinate and oversee the new recruits. The women worked full-time for three months as camp counselors, supervising and organizing activities. The summer camps lasted eight weeks; each week of camp featured a different theme — from sports to arts and crafts.

“This year, it was good to practice your English more with the kids because they will not judge kz1you. They try and fixing you and even this is not offended at all,” Zhumasheva said. “It’s really good practice.”

In Kazakstan, most people know Kazak and Russian — or at least can understand both Kazak and Russian, and a lot of people can understand English making most of the population multilingual, Ray explained. “It’s really impressive how many different languages they understand, and it helped a lot in coming here. Obviously they all have English skills that really helped in their transition with their jobs and their families,” she said.

Each student stayed with two different sets of host families during their stay, experiencing the American culture first-hand with cookouts — a new experience for the women, according to Ray — and going out to eat at different restaurants and touring Jacksonville, St. Augustine and even Orlando, visiting Walt Disney

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and Sea World — even laser tag at Adventure Landing. Zhumasheva was excited to come back for a second year to visit the friends in Nocatee and Chets Creek Church whom she had met during her first visit and stayed in touch with via Facebook.

11667303_10152803388350989_1435827643585491501_nFor the other women, it was a completely new experience. None had ever visited the United States before and they didn’t quite know what to expect. They were a little nervous before arriving, but their minds were quickly put at ease by the hospitality of their host families and the children they worked with at the camps.

“It was great summer for each of us,” Bereke “Beka” Alimsheyeva said. The 22-year-old student is studying two languages at her university: English and Turkish, and plans to be a teacher.

“We had eight different weeks, each week had different themes like sport week, H20 week, craft week,” Alimsheyeva said. Her favorite was craft week. “…we did a lot of crafts, we painted a lot and kids really liked it,” she said. “We used seashells more and it was cool.”

Fellow exchange student, Dana Bulakh, 20, said her favorite camp activity was playing sports, which is not surprising given her enthusiasm for sports back home — not to mention she and Zhumasheva are both planning to teach physical education and sports after they graduate.

Both women are very active in their home country — they like to swim, climb and play 10408664_476814252475416_3109047575008844051_nbasketball. Bulakh used to be an ice skater for seven years and was even a wrestler for a short time. Her father is a wrestler.

“Just a little of everything,” Bulakh said of the sports she likes to partake in.

Aimtory “Aika” Aidorova, 20, worked as a camp counselor and activities assistant at the Serenata Beach Club summer camp, about a 20 minute drive from Nocatee.

The PARC Group and Serenata Beach Club recently collaborated in an incentive program for Nocatee residents who are eligible for $2,500 off their initiation fees to the club as a “thank you” from the PARC Group, according to Ray. The relationship between the two companies broadened when the beach club hired Aidorova to work as a camp counselor for Serenata’s summer camp program.

“We have a whole day with kids playing like swimming pool, beach, activities, science aikaexperiments, art and craft hand-making…. It’s awesome,” Aidorova said. She is studying English and French and plans to be a middle school teacher. She said the campers were really smart and sweet, and that at first it was a little difficult because of the language barrier, but she said the children were very patient and helped her with her English a lot. She also grew very close with her host family.

“My support family says that before they lived like it was a little, small world — only family, no connections… But when they accept me in their family, they say that it’s the greatest experience. Their lifestyles maybe changed… and it’s also made me proud of myself. And it was joyous for me because I also found myself. I found my second family. It was a great experience for me,” she said.

“It was neat because by the end of the summer, we had dozens of families that were able to interact with everybody and learn so much about Kazakhstan and culture and differences. Obviously the girls were able to learn from us as well, and it was just this neat exchange of ideas over time,” Ray said. “The four of them are like family to me, truly like family and all of the families would say the same thing.”

fav picRay said that the host families are already looking forward to having more Kazakh students stay with them again next year.

In addition to host families, the program also asked for volunteers to provide dinners two nights per week for the students. Through the funding of The Greatest Exchange program from generous supporters, the students were provided with grocery gift cards to pay for meals, allowing them to keep 100 percent of the money they earned during the summer. That money will go far to help advance their futures when they are back home. Jobs are scarce, the women said, and the money they earned as camp counselors for a summer here in America equates to six times the amount of money they would be able to earn in an entire year in Kazakhstan.

The students wrapped up their summer stay, collecting souvenirs and contacts of the people whom they’ve met during their stay in order to keep in touch. They said their goodbyes during the Night of Celebration family-style potluck dinner thrown in their honor this past Friday at Greenleaf Park at Nocatee.

The Kazakh students in turn will play host to Ray when she returns to Kazakhstan this November to recruit more students for The Greatest Exchange program. Zhumasheva now works to help recruit other students who would be a good fit for the program. The criteria, according to Ray, is finding students who would love the Jacksonville lifestyle, would fit in well with families, would be hard workers and would overall just mesh with the overall philosophy of The Greatest Exchange program.

The entire process of recruiting the students and coordinating with the American and Kazakhstan embassies takes about eight months. To see more, visit The Greatest Exchange Facebook page at To learn more about The Greatest Exchange program, visit www.

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