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Volunteers are at the heart of the Rotary Youth Exchange program


As a Rotary Youth Exchange student from Sweden in the 1970s, Olof Frisk chose to study in Colorado because he wanted to ski. But it was meeting the other exchange students in the district that carved his life’s path.

At that moment, he knew he wanted to become a Rotarian. He went on to join a Rotary club and serve as club president, chair of his district’s Youth Exchange committee, and then chair of the multidistrict Youth Exchange committee overseeing the program throughout Sweden. Today, as governor of District 2340, Frisk remains involved in the program and believes volunteering to help Youth Exchange grow is an investment in Rotary’s future.

“If you haven’t been involved in a Youth Exchange and seen the interaction of the kids, you don’t realize how important this program is,” says Frisk. “Students from all over the world become leaders and are friendly with each other. This is the original thought behind peacebuilding.”

Inspired to get involved? Unlike other exchange programs, Rotary Youth Exchange runs entirely on volunteers, so extra hands are always in demand. Roles exist at both the club and district levels.

George French, a Rotary Youth Exchange student from Minnesota last year, is greeted by Ivone Pinheiro de Souza Silva and Ednei da Silva, his host parents in Guarulhos, Brazil, near São Paulo.

Image credit: Maira Erlich


By far the greatest need is for host families. If your district already has a program, approach your club’s committee chair. Like all Rotary and non-Rotary volunteers working with young people, host families need to complete an application, criminal background check, reference check, and in-person interview.

“It’s the best place to start. It gives you a great perspective if you are going to be coordinating the program at any other level,” says Sabrina Barreto, a counselor for Youth Exchange students in District 4500 (Brazil) who went on both short- and long-term exchanges.

Barreto’s mother, Emanuelle, a member of the Rotary Club of Natal-Potiguar, chairs the district’s Youth Exchange committee and has hosted more than 40 students, starting when Sabrina was a year old. Emanuelle Barreto says another way to get involved is to volunteer as a counselor.


Clubs assign a counselor who serves as a liaison for the student, club, host family, and community at large. The counselor is the student’s primary Rotary contact, easing the transition into the country and the community through regular, direct interactions throughout the exchange.

A Rotary counselor can’t hold a role of authority over the student’s exchange (for example, the person can’t be a member of a student’s host family, school principal, club president, or district or club Youth Exchange officer). And counselors must be able to respond to any problems or concerns that may arise, including anything from students’ simple questions about navigating their new town to rare instances of abuse or harassment.

“It’s very important for the counselor to build a connection with the student,” says Emanuelle Barreto. “We are not just talking about taking them for coffee or a sandwich or to a movie. You’ve got to get to know them and spend time with them. Sometimes that means being together just doing nothing.”

George French and Regina Alesi participate in a Rotary meeting last year during their exchanges in Brazil.

Image credit: Maira Erlich

Serving on a committee

If you already have some experience, consider serving on your club or district Youth Exchange committee. A club committee plans, implements, and supports all activities involved in sending and hosting long- and short-term exchange students. As a member of a club committee, you will attend district Youth Exchange meetings, establish expectations for how students will participate in club meetings and activities, obtain feedback from students, and notify the district’s Youth Exchange chair of any issues or concerns.

On the district level, committee members work with the district governor and the district’s youth protection officer to supervise the entire district’s program. A youth protection officer is responsible for fostering safe environments across all youth programs. For this role, you’ll need professional experience handling abuse and harassment issues, as well as a familiarity with RI policies and relevant local and national laws.

Some districts band together to form a multidistrict Youth Exchange committee to streamline administrative duties over a larger region. Each multidistrict group operates differently, but many arrange training for volunteers and orientation for students, process applications and visa paperwork, negotiate group rates for travel and insurance, and promote the program in their region.

Supporting cast

If none of the above roles fits your time and talents, consider helping spread the word about the program. “There are so many things to be done,” says Sabrina Barreto. “There are relationships to build with clubs, families, and other districts. You don’t necessarily need to be involved with teenagers. There is a role for everyone.”

No matter the role, the work is fulfilling.

“I’ve had no better feeling than to see the kids that I have trained on the other side of the world accomplishing great things,” she says. “Just speaking about it gives me goose bumps. It makes me so proud of them.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary Youth Exchange builds peace one young person at a time.