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It’s hard to believe it has been four years since I took my YMCA youth leadership trip to Sierra Leone, Africa. It was a trip that brought together so many people in a way that will never be forgotten, and the common statement of “when can we go back” has been asked repeatedly every year since. As with any experience there are things that are remembered more vividly than others, but there is always that one thing that stays with you. For me that thing was the feeling I got coming back to Toronto and driving home after our ten-day trip. The feeling of just “wow, what a difference”.

After spending ten days driving in a whole different kind of civilization and culture, and coming back to drive on Highway 401, there was an overall feeling of wastefulness in our community. It’s a cliché to say that you will see the world differently after you go on an exchange like we did, but in this case it’s a cliché for a reason. I’d like to think that since the exchange, I’ve played a small role in the journey to reduce some of the wastefulness, and helped spread education about Africa and its amazing people.

While in Sierra Leone, the youth leadership team visited schools, interacted with the people and brought bags full of supplies and sports equipment. We also helped to build much needed shelters. The benefits of participating in an international experience are immense, and the transferability to other aspects of daily life ultimately made us each more active citizens in some way. The different places we visited—Freetown, Bo, Kenema and the beautiful River Number 2 along the Western Coast—were absolutely breathtaking.

Four years later, those of us on the exchange still feel this unbelievable bond and sense of shared experience. It allows us to reflect on what we saw, what we felt, and the draw we all have to return. But it also allows us to spread the word, and educate all the various people we meet, whether it’s to a friend, or to a person interviewing you for a job.

I would encourage anyone thinking about an international experience to apply for the opportunity. The benefits will portray themselves through so many different avenues. And the experience is more than just the actual travel: it’s about all the teamwork and team building prior, during, and everything that comes after.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to Sierra Leone and am very thankful that the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka made this life-changing experience possible.

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