By Kelly Owen, Founder of The Greatest Exchange.
It all started in 2011 when my friend Meredith was moving to Kazakhstan for a five-month period to study Russian and teach English. I always supported Meredith and was excited about her opportunity, but never dreamed that I should join her endeavors. One day the question was posed to me why I didn’t come along- and I knew in my heart that it was the path that I was supposed to take. So we packed our bags and headed to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
What were the coldest, most tea-filled months of our lives turned into a tapestry of beautiful relationships. The business university embraced us as we taught classes and learned their language. We lived in the dormitory and developed friendships with teachers and administrators of the university. We also were able to spend time in various orphanages across the city, teaching English skills and spending time with children from all types of backgrounds.
After the five months ended, the question was presented. Now what? How do we gap these worlds and show these Kazakh people how much we value a relationship with them? How can we beat the “revolving door” mentality of short-term trips overseas, and make a lasting impact?
Upon a return trip 10 months later, I was introduced to the Kazakh girl that started it all. Aigul was 26 years old, and grew up in a nearby orphanage. She was living in government housing, but wanted to come to America to earn some money to provide for herself and improve her English. When Aigul looked at me and asked if I knew of any job she could have in America for the following summer, that’s where the flame was sparked.
Ten months. That’s the time that the process took to get Aigul employed, approved through Kazakh and US governments, and finally able to book a flight to America. Over the course of the time, Aisulu, a student from the university that I previously worked with, came alongside and joined the journey to America as well.
Three months. That’s the length of time that Aigul and Aisulu lived with me in my home in Jacksonville, FL. They worked full time as camp counselors and lived every part of life with me. They biked along Jacksonville beach, learned to surf, grilled their first hamburgers, and learned to love local favorites like 4 Rivers and Angie’s Subs.
The outpouring of love and support for the girls was overwhelming. The community in Jacksonville stepped up to provide meals for the girls, send them to Disney World, and teach them to cook. Bags of clothes were donated, and supporters even covered the cost of their plane tickets to and from Kazakhstan. Through the support of amazing communities that believed and loved these girls, they were able to go back to Kazakhstan with 100% of the money they had earned.
What did that 100% do? For these girls, more than you could imagine.
So what does that 100% mean now- today- to The Greatest Exchange? Everything. 100% of everything given goes right back to girls like Aigul and Aisulu, to bring them here to have the summer of their lives-the greatest exchange they could imagine. But this is more than a work exchange program…this is a true exchange of cultures and lives. The American families they will meet here will be able to learn from and embrace students from another culture…and will become the ultimate beneficiary.
That’s how we began. Because a group of givers found a deserving relationship to invest in.
This isn’t a big process or an organization. These are people dedicated to building relationships. This is an opportunity to be a part of a lasting relationship and meet your new favorite miracle. I can say it so confidently because it’s how I met mine.