In August 1990, I left my hometown in rural upstate New York, for a year as an exchange student to Tasmania, Australia. The experience helped shape my adult life, as it has for many other exchange students. However, my situation was unique because I was one of the first students with a mobility impairment to participate in Rotary Youth Exchange.
At the time of my exchange, I was able to walk short distances but used a manual wheelchair for the majority of my community mobility. I was unable to independently climb stairs, stand from a low chair, climb into a bathtub, or pick myself off the floor if I fell, which I did quite gracefully about once every month.(click below to read more)
Denise and Samantha during Samantha’s exchange year.
There were people who doubted how well I would do in an exchange because of my disability. They questioned how I would thrive in a foreign country and if I could ask strangers for help. Some wondered how I would participate in exchange activities, such as the nearly month-long tour around Australia – a highlight of the exchange. A few even suggested I excuse myself from the tour because I might be a burden on other students with my need for regular assistance.
But Rotarians believed in me, selecting me to be a representative of my country and Rotary. When others questioned my decision to leave home at age 16 and live for a year on the other side of the world, Rotarians gave me a chance to live my dream. Rotarians supported and encouraged me throughout my year abroad. Because Rotarians believed in me, I became more confident in my abilities.
Lessons I learned during my exchange still resonate. Independence is not doing everything on your own. It is recognizing that asking for help can increase your opportunity to fully engage in the activities of your choice. Strength is not the ability to climb Kings Canyon with 80 other exchange students. It is advocating for your rights when facing discrimination from those in power. Home is not just the place you were born. Home can be wherever you find love and friendship.
Rotarians supported and encouraged me throughout my year abroad. Because Rotarians believed in me, I became more confident in my abilities.
As part of the arrangement with Tasmania, my home club also welcomed an exchange student with a disability. Samantha “Sam” Brundle was born with a rare congenital heart defect and came to New York on exchange in 1995. My parents hosted Sam, and her year started her on a course she could never have imagined. Returning to Australia, she went to work for Club Med, met the love of her life, married, and settled in Sydney. Her family was told at birth she would live just a few years. Samantha died in 2006 at the age of 30.
I will always be grateful to those special Rotarian supporters, in the United States and in Australia. I hope they fully understand how much their confidence transformed me into a confident, well-rounded adult. Now that I am a Rotarian, I am honored to be back in the Rotary family, performing service for others.
Denise DiNoto works as an outreach advocate for people with disabilities at Consumer Directed Choices and has held title and leadership roles with the Ms. Wheelchair America advocacy program. Active in the community, she is president of The College of St. Rose Alumni Association and a member of the Colonie-Guilderland, New York, Rotary Club.