Several years ago, Emily MacKinnon was sponsored by Castlegar Sunrise 2000 Rotary to go on exchange to Sardinia. She had an eventful year there and sent several articles based on her experiences. Since then she has been studying in Ottawa and has done very well academically, according to Rotarian Kay Jones.
In addition, MacKinnon has been very involved in a swim program for special needs students called “Making Waves.” She has recently been accepted to the University of Victoria’s Law Program.
“Emily is an outstanding example of the success and influence of a Rotary Exchange and of course, her own initiative and drive have contributed to her success,” wrote Jones in an email.
Emily recently wrote the following letter with information about her involvement with Rotary and how Rotary has impacted her life:
I had stuffed my suitcase to maximum capacity, I could count the Italian words I knew on one hand, and I was sobbing uncontrollably. Courtesy of Rotary District 5080’s Youth Exchange Program, I was boarding a plane for the island of Sardinia.
My thoughts were as self-centred as any teenager’s: how could I survive without the guidance and support of friends and family? Would I be able to learn Italian? What had I signed up for?
Despite my anxiety, in the ten months that followed, I formed many meaningful bonds, carved a new notch into my belt of languages, and defeated the monster of culture shock. I learned to make pasta by hand, gained an appreciation for Italian literature, and even wrote a monthly column for my hometown newspaper musing on the wonders of exchange.
But it was not until repatriation that I was struck by the most important aspect of my journey. All of my little adventures had played out against a backdrop of something much greater: the kindness of others. Why had so many people – Rotarians, families, high school students — given so much to enrich the life of a stranger?
As a veteran exchange student, I became more involved with my district’s club. With a more intimate knowledge of the club, I began to understand.
The Rotary motto is service above self. The men and women I met through exchange lived and breathed these words. They had developed their abilities and resources with the goal of assisting those without the same advantages. Observing it, I hungered to cultivate this ethic in myself, and threw myself into volunteerism. I dabbled with a number of wonderful organizations, but it was at a fledgling university club where I fell in love.
The object of my affection was Making Waves, a national organization seeking to prevent drownings among children with disability via affordable one-on-one swim lessons. When I first joined its ranks, our branch of the club could most politely be described as “rag-tag.” With twelve volunteers, a pint-sized pool, nearly no funding, and a handful of young swimmers, the program promised to give me an authentic opportunity to Make a Difference. In fact, what it gave me was Michael.
Michael was unusually small for a five-year-old, his lack of muscular development a typical trait for a young child with Down syndrome. What he did not lack, even at that age, was pure, bossy attitude: he was always happy to assure me that he was in charge of every situation, even as he clung to me desperately when the water got too deep. I was hooked.
As quickly as possible, I found ways to get more involved. I planned events, sweet-talked donors, and spent an inordinate amount of time in a bathing suit. Before I quit knew what was happening, the 2012-2013 school year had dawned and I was sharing the presidency of a club that spanned two pools and served fifty-five children — the largest of all Making Waves branches.
We tumbled through growing pains and growing wait lists, abysmal funding and absconding volunteers, but even mid-crisis there was always optimism. Community organizations wanted to support our mission. CTV Ottawa ran a segment on us. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario presented us with the Healthy Kids award. Michael swam unassisted from the wall into my arms. We laughed.
It has been nearly six years since I first experienced the selflessness of Rotarians. A new year of Making Waves is poised to begin — this time, with eighty children on the roster.
Michael is turning nine, and assures me that this will be the year he swims an entire length by himself. My pride in him reflects the outcome I desire from my work, and it is this value that I expect uVic Law will help me integrate with my career aspirations.
The combination of legal education and leadership skills are powerful aides in my ongoing quest to empower others and to inspire, as I was inspired by, service above self.