Bringing the World to Her Doorstep
Take one single woman. Add a fulltime job, three children, an enormous sense of responsibility and a yearning for adventure. Fold in intelligence and caring. Sprinkle generously with spirit and wit. Mix well, and what do you get? If you're lucky, you get a dynamo like Alison Meeks.
Alison earns her living as a wealth management specialist at Sun Trust Bank. While she loves her work and excels in the business world, she is equally passionate about another job-one that pays in moments and memories instead of money. Chairman of the Rotary Club's district 7770 Youth Exchange program, she is responsible for overseeing the process of bringing foreign students to America and sending local students to live and study abroad.
"I love to travel, but at this stage in life, I can't. This is a way for me to enjoy other countries. It's like I bring the world to me," said Alison. But perhaps even more gratifying is sharing the experience with her children. "I try to be a good role model and encourage them to think more globally," she said.
According to Alison, high school juniors and seniors can choose to participate in a short summer session or a year-long exchange. Criteria for the program is not based on grade point average, but on a set of skills, including bravery, personal confidence, independence, ability to fit in with others and a passion for learning. "It takes a special person to leave their family, their community and all their comforts to go overseas for a year," said Alison.
Both inbound and outbound students participate in two training sessions, one in their own country and another in the host country. "We teach them about culture shock, home sickness, how to fit into a family, how to be a good ambassador-and we teach them the rules," said Alison.
Students are also coached on the resources that are available to them. Strict controls are in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. In addition to the host family, which has been thoroughly screened, every student has a YE officer, a same-sex counselor and a non-Rotarian advisor. "They have numerous outlets," said Alison, adding that the program is regulated under the State Department. "It's all good. It protects the children."
According to Alison, more inbound students are participating than outbound, and she is striving for greater balance. "It's sad, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The primary purpose is to create future ambassadors-to have a sensitivity and open-mindedness to differences. These kids will become future leaders," she explained.
The experience is a dual learning process for the students as well as the host families. Recently hosting a young girl from India, Alison learned to cook traditional Indian foods while her family participated in Indian celebrations and ceremonies. In return, the visiting student got a taste of American culture and a feel for a different family dynamic.
"Once you host this child, your family grows," Alison explained. "I've made good friends. So when the day comes that I can travel, it will be more meaningful. I won't be a tourist. I feel lucky that those opportunities are there for me in the future."
How you can help: If you would like to host a foreign exchange student, or if your child is interested in applying to the outbound program, please call Alison at 843-301-8010.
Hometown: Kirkland, Ohio Hilton Head Island resident: eight years Family: Alex, age 15; Andrew, age 10; and Adam, age 8 Describes herself as: quirky and unique When not helping clients meet their financial objectives or running taxi service for her kids, find her: cooking, reading, enjoying the theatre and playing golf (just enough to say she knows how). Person who most inspired her: her mother. "Talk about loving travel; I got that from my mom. They called her 'the gypsy.' She was never afraid to do anything."