A Rotary Alumni Feature Story
 
Although a shy high school student, I had a passion for languages, different cultures and a huge desire to explore the world. But I lacked confidence, held a lot of fear, felt like I didn’t have a voice nor knew who I was.  However, I did know deep-down this wasn’t the person I was meant to be. I needed help, guidance and a catalyst to become my true self and I knew travelling was the answer.
 
Picture: Natasha on her Prom Night
 
When I was searching for ways to travel while still being a high school student, I came across Rotary Youth Exchange programme, which instantly took my attention because of its community feel.  There was training before you left, a family and community ready to welcome you on the other side and all part of a trusted global organisation.  This also gave my parents some peace of mind, to allow me to go away for a year.
 
I passed through the intense selection and was given my destination of Canada. At first I was a little disappointed because I wanted to go somewhere I could learn a new language and be totally immersed in a completely different culture.  However, I ended up going to Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, which is the furthest east state of Canada.  This state is bilingual and I was in a French High School where boy did I learn some French!  My previous four years studying French did not prepare me for East Canadian French. They have a very thick accent, there were so many different words and the young ones growing up bilingual switched between English and French, sometimes within the same sentence.  I loved every second of it!
 
Picture: 2007 Inbound Rotary Youth Exchange students in Canada
 
My year in Canada was the most inspiring, fun and challenging year of my life. The Rotary Youth Exchange programme changed everything, because I was able to learn a lot about myself, learn about different parts of the world and I was totally immersed in the Rotary culture.
During my time overseas, I had never been surrounded by so many generous people, who wanted to help you, wanted to know about your culture and to teach you about their home.  I was given the opportunity by Rotary to travel around New Brunswick, as well as a trip down to New York.  I attended Rotary meetings, conferences, volunteer days and was taken out on family trips.
 
One of my most life changing experiences was volunteering at Camp Rotary over the eight weeks of summer.  This was a camp like you see in American movies, but it was week-long camps for kids through to adults with mental and physical disabilities.  Each week would be a specific disability, for example an adult camp for people with physical disabilities, then the next week a camp for kids with diabetes.  During these camps I was responsible for taking care of a group of campers, be that changing and feeding them, as well as being a part of the huge amount of activities they would not normally be able to do.  Some activities were canoeing, swimming, partaking in crafts and camp performances.  It was one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my life so far, but it really was the catalyst for the changes in my life.
 
I came back from Canada a completely different person.  I became the person I knew I had inside me, but couldn’t get out.  I no longer held any fear for the unknown.  I had gained an air of confidence about me and a drive to do like Rotary and help those in need.
A year later, at just 18 years old, I became Head Coach of a swim club, where I took the club from no competitive swimmers, to gold medallists in New Zealand.  During the five years I spent leading the club, I also started a swim school, where I had around 200 kids learning to swim through my programme.  Also over this time, I gained a university education, graduating with a Masters in Environmental Science. 
 
Now I have a small consultancy business helping cafes and restaurants transition onto the new Food Safety Regulations.  As an extension of this I am on the verge of releasing a social enterprise, helping cafes and restaurants navigate their way through the food safety regulations via an app, while profits from the app go towards helping disadvantaged youth in New Zealand gain a trade within the food industry.  The ultimate goal is to put 100 youth a year through a chef trade or hospitality management course, to reduce the number of our youth turning towards gang life, prison or unemployment.
 
Just this year, I thought it was time to reunite with Rotary.  So, I contacted Takapuna North Rotary, who sponsored me for Youth Exchange. It really was something special to return to where my journey started.  I am proud to say I am a product of the good that Rotary does in this world and now I want to give back and help change people’s lives, like mine has been changed forever for the better.