As the “home of the free,” America has become known around the world as a land of liberties and opportunities — many of which citizens of other countries have only dreamed of. With the help of the Greater Jacksonville community, however, one local nonprofit has taken up the task of making that list of dreamers a little shorter.
The Greatest Exchange, founded in 2014, is a cultural exchange program that enables young, college-age Kazakh women to spend their summers working as camp counselors in the Jacksonville area.
“In the summer of 2014, I brought two girls from Kazakhstan and they lived with me for 10 weeks as they worked as summer camp counselors in the Splash Water Park at Nocatee,” said Founder Kelly Ray, who spent time working in Kazakhstan as an English teacher and dance instructor. “Not only did they do an incredible job as counselors, but their lives were completely transformed. They were also able to earn enough money to cover an entire year of expenses in Kazakhstan.”
It’s now been four years since those first two women came to Ponte Vedra, and The Greatest Exchange program has expanded to include more participants and several other camps, including those of Julington Creek Plantation, Crosswater Community Church, Serenata Beach Club and Bartram Academy. Although the program has since grown into a full-fledged nonprofit, it was never Ray’s plan for that to happen. The original idea behind the program, she said, stemmed from a simple, yet earnest desire to help the oppressed and hard-working Kazakh women she had come to know and love.
“There’s this tremendous pressure, oppression, lack of self-worth and lack of opportunity given to young women there,” she said. “I thought, ‘How much more equipped and how much more loved would they feel if they had the opportunity to come here and participate in everything that we have to offer on this side of the world, and then take all of that back to make a difference in their own communities?’”
Now, years later, many of the program’s former participants seem to be doing just that.
“Every single one of our girls has graduated from college and is now employed,” Ray said. “And not only are they employed, but they’re actually using their English skills in jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for, had they not participated in this program. We have girls that said they never knew how to smile. We’ve seen them grow in confidence, we’ve seen them grow in opportunities and we’ve really seen them grow in love and hope as well.”
The program’s participants aren’t the only people to have benefited from The Greatest Exchange either, as many of their host families have come to view the women as part of the family.
“While The Greatest Exchange program lasted only through the summer, the experience is long-lasting,” said Sarah Hydrick, a host mother with the program. “The connection with our new daughter and the community of supporters we are now a part of grew stronger even after the summer was over, and we are so looking forward to hosting again this year.”
For Gulassem, a 2016 participant whose last name has been omitted for her safety, the opportunities afforded to her through the program were invaluable.
“It was literally the best summer in my life,” she said. “My favorite part about the whole program is that (it gives) such big opportunities to Kazakh girls and make their hearts bigger and give the feeling that every dream is real. I want everybody in The Greatest Exchange to understand what great things they do. They are literally changing the world, making a few little hearts happy.”
While there are countless opportunities that The Greatest Exchange program has to offer these young women, for Ray, what matters most is the people that they become in the process.
“What we want the girls to believe is that it’s not about their address, it’s about who they are as a person,” she said. “We just want them to be able to take anything that they’ve learned and to make a difference in their own culture.”
For more information about the Greatest Exchange, visit www.greatestexchange.org.