Illustration by Michael Byers
Michelle Frechette can’t say no. Invite her to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Rio Rancho, N.M., USA, blink once, and she’s a member. Blink again, and she’s providing room and board to Carolina del Castillo, a Chilean student who arrived early for her Rotary Youth Exchange program.
Frechette doesn’t simply talk about the exchange students; she gushes. “Let me tell you about those children,” she exclaims, referring to the first group she encountered. “Those children were amazing. Carolina del Castillo came to live with us in 1996. I call her my exchange daughter. She was a great spark to my desire to spend time with these kids. She was so eager to learn.”
Rod, Frechette’s husband, can’t say no either. The couple wake up every morning ready to take on whatever comes next – mentoring, busing, organizing, or counseling – all while raising their four children and maintaining a joint law practice in nearby Albuquerque.
Kids at their best and worst
Frechette, a criminal lawyer, says she sees kids at their best and worst. The ones she’s met through her affiliation with Rotary, she is quick to tell you, more than justify the time and energy she’s devoted to facilitating exchanges. “Between Youth Exchange and juvenile defense, I really feel I’m able to help youngsters,” she says.
Word got out about Frechette, and in 2009, Rotarian Cheryl Strotz pulled her aside at the conference of District 5520, which covers parts of New Mexico and Texas, and asked her to chair the district’s Youth Exchange program. She hesitated, but only briefly. Even for her, the post represented a major commitment: by her estimate, several hours a week, plus six weekends a year away from home. It also meant vetting host parents and ensuring program compliance.
Ultimately, she said yes. Now, at 47, Frechette feels she is just hitting her stride. A multitasker with a gift for navigating procedures, she’s able to steer exchange student applications through the process more easily than most. And nothing pleases her more than trucking around carloads of teens, she says. “Every day that I spend during orientation with 15 to 35 of them, I try to teach myself a whole new set of pace-setting skills. I’m usually overengaged; it’s my personality type. But I’m always asking myself: Can I improve the way I relate to these kids? And I can, just by slowing down.”
Slowing down, of course, is a matter of perception. Frechette has always been on the fast track. When she found she couldn’t do much traveling – not with a family to raise, a law practice to keep afloat, and clients to defend – she did the next best thing: seeing the world vicariously by supporting the adventures of young people through Youth Exchange.
Childhood in New York
Frechette learned the value of community service as a child in Cadyville, New York, near the Canadian border. Her mom was a nurse and her dad was a corrections officer, as well as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. She recalls dashing out with her parents on freezing nights, winter coats and boots thrown over PJs, to pull drivers from cars stuck in the snow. She also remembers lying sprawled next to her siblings on the concrete floor of the local community center, all of them covered in fake blood and with their limbs in splints, doing their civic duty as pretend crash victims for their dad’s emergency trainings. Other kids might have resented the obligation, but not Frechette: “It was a blast!”
At law school, she met Rod. As their relationship developed, she recalls, Rod encouraged her to think about all the possible places where they might settle. New Mexico’s breathtaking vistas and cultural richness did the rest. When they stepped off the plane in Albuquerque for an exploratory visit, she fell in love with the Southwest.
Since 1990, she and Rod have lived in a roomy hacienda-style house in Corrales, north of Albuquerque. In 1995, Frechette was invited by a friend, Pauline Eisenstadt, to join Rotary. At Frechette’s second club meeting, she recalls thinking, “Wow, there’s a lot of opportunity here.” Rotary’s international scope and dedication to service offered her a chance to have a significant impact on others’ lives.
“I look at the kids we select for Youth Exchange as being able to solve long-term global problems,” she says. “I help them grasp that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And as they travel, they get that.
“I’d really like to get out there and be a Rotarian doing immunizations in India or digging ditches in Guatemala,” she continues, though she quickly adds, “But it doesn’t matter.” For now, she travels in spirit with young people like Sarita Jarmack.
A zest for adventure
When Sarita applied to the Rio Rancho club’s fledgling outbound program as a high school student, Frechette sensed her zest for adventure. She was confident that Sarita would never be satisfied traveling to places as a tourist, but would want to kick soccer balls with local children, lug water pails, and do whatever was necessary to sustain daily life in the communities she visited. But first, Frechette had to help her go abroad.
Sarita spent a year in Sweden as a Youth Exchange student, a trip that would become the first chapter of a lengthy travel narrative, bolstered by Rotary as well as Sarita’s own determination. Now 24, she has been to Central and South America and to Georgia, the former Soviet republic, where she was a volunteer teacher.
Frechette is emotional as she talks about Sarita’s overseas experiences. She knows that she and the younger woman share a deep bond over their passion for service and adventure.
“I was so overcome by Sarita’s desire to learn more about the world,” Frechette says. “I told her, ‘ProjectLINK is a database you could use to continue your travels and stay part of Rotary.’ Within a short time, she picked a project in Sri Lanka, and my club provided the letter needed for her to volunteer.
“She told me about one experience there that stays with me,” Frechette continues. “As she walked into a remote village where few foreigners ever venture, she encountered a line of older women passing along bricks to rebuild a crumbled Buddhist temple. Without a word, she joined the line and began to help. The women immediately stopped and tried to get her to move away, pointing to their hands and to hers. She realized that they weren’t chasing her off; they were concerned that she would get calluses, like theirs. They were trying to protect her. But she shrugged off their concern and joined in the work. When they were finished for the day, she was invited to mingle with the women’s families.”
In September, Sarita began pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar.
Reflecting on the Youth Exchange students, Frechette says, “They will shine as they meet the challenge of world peace and understanding head-on.” And although they are the bright stars of the future, the woman who ignited their passion may be the brightest of all.