Exchange program forges cultural connections
By Dave Palana
WHITMAN — Donna Gardner of Whitman has been hosting exchange students long enough to know the Wrentham Outlets are a must-stop destination for Massachusetts visitors. She’s also been hosting long enough to get a pleasant surprise on her recent trip to the shopping Mecca.
Gardner, and her Whitman host families, took the five Italian homestay students staying in town this summer to Wrentham last Thursday only to run into an old friend all grown up.
“I said ‘I know this walk, it can only be this person,’” Gardner said. “It was my first exchange student and his wife, who he met at Whitman-Hanson. Now they live in Belgium.”
Gardner is the Bay State’s administration for Cultural Homestay International, a volunteer organization that matches students hoping to spend time abroad with local families willing to provide room and board. Whitman-Hanson has been a gracious host for exchange students for years, but when five students from Italy decided to take in New England for three weeks on their summer vacation, Whitman families were more than happy to oblige.
“We wanted to learn English better and know another culture — their habits and what [Americans] usually do,” said Chiara Cassiano, a high school student from Milan. “And to leave your life and try something new.”
Cassiano, Giulia Fontana and Marco Tardivo all came to Whitman from Milan, though they did not know each other before the plane ride over. Giorgio Meloro and Riccardo Fomina both hail from Manza, near Milan, knew each other previously and decided to take the trip together.
The group took in Provincetown and Plymouth in addition to Wrentham, but the trip to Boston was the highlight for most.
“It is very different from Italian cities,” Meloro said.
Tardivo, Meloro and Fomina also saw a stock car race in Seekonk while Cassiano ventured to Pittsburg with her host family and Fontana took in a New England tradition — the whale watch.
“It was amazing,” she said. “There were, like, 15 whales all around the ship.”
Tardivo got a sampling of American soccer with a trip to Gillette Stadium to take in a New England Revolution game , which didn’t quite have the same atmosphere as watching AC Milan in his eyes.
“It is different,” he said jokingly. “In Italy, it is better.”
Tardivo was the first student taken in by the Winnett family. Michelle Winnett said the positive experiences her children had meeting the Cultural Homestay students during their time at Whitman-Hanson motivated her to volunteer a bed in her house and added the experience was so positive that she will now be hosting a Swiss boy for the school year.
“It’s been great,” Winnett said. “We enjoyed being able to show [Marco] the things that were around here, and he’s been just a wonderful guest.”
“Most people think the reward is just for the student, but that’s not true,” Gardner added, “the families have such an amazing time with the kids… I think because we’re volunteers I think there is a lot more love and effort put into the kids. The kids are not a paycheck.”
The five students headed home Sunday after cooking a goodbye meal from their families and taking one last trip to the Cape. Cassiano is hoping to return for the school year, and hoping to stay with the same family, while the others all said they either hope to return for a visit or return the favor by showing their host families a slice of Italy.
“I wish I could come back,” Fontana said. “I had such a great time.”
If Cassiano returns, she will join students from Australia, Brazil and Slovakia at Whitman-Hanson in addition to the Winnett’s Swiss guest.
“Whitman-Hanson is wonderful with taking students,” Gardner said. “Families host over and over and over because it’s an amazing experience.”