By Christine Rodenbaugh, Editor of The Ponte Recorder
A Night of Celebration was bittersweet as eight young women from Kazakhstan took the stage at Waypoint Church at Nocatee on Aug. 9 to share their stories with host families, prayer partners and supporters of The Greatest Exchange. The girls gathered with new friends to share a meal of traditional Kazakh food, celebrate 10 weeks of an amazing summer and bid farewell to the United States, at least for now.
In 2011, Kelly Ray, founder of The Greatest Exchange, traveled to Kazakhstan with a friend to teach English and study Russian. Kazakhstan, sandwiched between Asia and Europe, is the ninth largest country in the world, and once was the second largest republic in the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.).
“What were the coldest, most tea-filled months of our lives turned into a tapestry of beautiful relationships,” Ray stated on nonprofit’s website.
That trip planted a seed in Ray’s heart to find a way to show Kazakh people how valuable the cross-cultural relationship is. She returned to Kazakhstan 10 months later and met 26-year-old Aigul who grew up in an orphanage. Aigul wanted to know if there was a way for her to go to America and work to earn money to provide for herself and improve her English.
Ray said it took 10 months to complete the process to get Aigul employed, approved through Kazakh and U.S. governments, and finally able to book a flight to America. Another student Ray had met on the first trip, Aisulu, joined Aigul on the journey to Florida.
The girls lived with Ray for three months learning about American culture and earning money to take back to Kazakhstan. The community stepped up in a big way providing trips to Disney World, donating clothes and providing plane fare. Because of local generosity, the girls went home with 100% of the money earned while stateside.
Instead of calling it one and done, Ray founded The Greatest Exchange. This year’s Night of Celebration marked the sixth summer of a cultural exchange that transforms the lives of the eight young women who venture nearly 7,000 miles from home and hosts who welcome into their homes.
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