Convention: an opportunity of a lifetime

Nov 28, 2011

Sophia Bird

by: Sophia Bird

Sophia Bird is the daughter of South Central Indiana Kiwanian Loni Dishong. After serving as president of the Jackson Creek Middle School Bloomington Builders Club, she moved on to high school and was elected president this year for the Bloomington, Indiana, Key Club. Here, she writes about attending the 2011 Kiwanis International Convention. Though she reflects on her experiences in Geneva, Switzerland, her remarks speak of the enlightening opportunities that await Kiwanis-family members of all ages at the 97th annual Kiwanis International Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 28–July 1, 2012.

I became involved in Kiwanis two years ago, as I was going into seventh grade. I was nervous, but my mom managed to coax me into attending the first Builders Club meeting of the year. They were holding their elections. Due to encouragement from my family, I agreed to run for president. I was excited by the idea of a new experience. And so, when the election results were in and I found myself the president of such an incredible club, I was both thrilled and honored to be a part of something so great.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m a Kiwanian by nature. I was brought up that way. My grandparents, Linda and Jerry Christiano, and my mother, Loni Dishong, are all involved in Kiwanis, and they have taught me to help others from the start. However, joining the Builders Club at my school would make me not only a Kiwanian in upbringing, but one in title as well.

This summer, my grandparents invited me to join them for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the 2011 Kiwanis International Convention in Geneva, Switzerland. Of course, I jumped at the chance to travel overseas for the very first time. On the fourth of July, I found myself boarding an airplane for an experience I would never forget.

I had dealt with a few long trips before. I visit my grandparents every summer, and it’s a 10-hour drive one way. While that seemed long, it couldn’t prepare me for a plane ride overseas. Altogether, I spent 11 hours on a plane, an hour and a half in a car and at least four hours sitting in airports. Of course, it was fun to be experiencing something so new and different from anything I had seen before, but the sight of the hotel was a welcome relief.

The Starling Hotel in Geneva was big and beautiful, with lots of space and décor that was pretty to look at. I thought that the use of glass was very interesting. Where wood or metal would be used here in the United Sates, glass was often used in the hotel. For example, the railings of the staircases inside the hotel were partially constructed of glass, as was the door to the restroom inside our hotel room.

I was excited and impatient for the events to begin. At the opening session, I had the honor to see Jane Goodall. She discussed the Earth and how we might save it from the damage that has been done, such as deforestation. Listening to her experiences and accomplishments was a powerful start to an eye-opening week. She brought peace into the room with her and inspired us to leave the session with determination to save lives one community at a time.

I was in awe of the strength and conviction of each and every Kiwanian there that week. I met Kiwanians from Australia, Holland and many who lived in Geneva! I knew that these were the days of my life I would remember in each service project I participated in. I would be refueled by the mind-blowing will to succeed in helping those in need.

Throughout the week I attended enough luncheons, workshops and dinners to last me quite a long time. Each was an exciting new opportunity to learn. One of the workshops I attended focused on Kiwanis’ current campaign to change the world: The Eliminate Project. The Eliminate Project strives to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus from the face of the Earth by 2015. Kiwanis has pledged to raise US$110 million by that deadline. Partnered with UNICEF, The Eliminate Project will provide vaccines to women who have no access to medical services during their child-bearing years. The program will save and protect the lives of millions of women and newborn babies.

In honor of The Eliminate Project and the babies that will be saved and protected, Kiwanis has created a new award: the Walter Zeller Fellowship. I was impressed by the amount of people who received their Zellers and gave their own personal money towards such a noble cause. Is there anything that could speak of Kiwanis’ power more?

Everyone I had the pleasure to meet had something new to teach and something new to bring to the organization. I heard many accents and different languages spoken. Not everyone at the convention spoke English. A great number of Kiwanians who attended had to use headsets through which translator’s voices spoke to them in a language that was familiar.

I have always had an appreciation for language. My mother is fluent in Spanish and can speak some French as well. It was easy to become lost in the beautiful trills of the French language spoken around us. Interacting with those who spoke little to no English was an awakening experience. After much laughter, illustrations and miming you could usually get your point across, but at times it was hopeless to try.

French was not the only thing that was different about the Swiss culture. In the town where I live, you see more people biking than in most cities in America. But in Switzerland, there were bikes everywhere. I believe there were more bikes than cars. Even when bikes weren’t present, more people seemed to use forms of public transportation such as buses and electric trolleys.

My grandmother and I spent some time in downtown Geneva. It’s a gorgeous city with old and beautiful buildings lining the streets. There are countless alleys which sport small cafés, where in the evening everyone comes out to relax and have a meal. Swiss meals have three courses. There first was a kind of salad or other starter dish, then a main course such as chicken or pork, and thirdly a delicious dessert, which commonly included Swiss chocolate. Guiltily, the dessert was my favorite, and I looked forward to it each time I sat down for a meal.

I can’t think of a better choice of location for the 96th Annual International Convention than Geneva. The atmosphere was peaceful, cheerful and sophisticated. The mountains surrounding the city are beautiful, and the temperature was mild and pleasant, which made walking fun rather than tiresome. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and it certainly surpassed my expectations.

On Saturday, my trip had come to an end. It was hard to believe that my week in Switzerland had passed, but already it was time to attend the closing session and say goodbye to the people I’d met. However, I still had one more incredible event to look forward to. Jamie Lee Curtis was speaking at the closing session.

Ms. Curtis discussed her life, her children and how she has learned from them. She strives, just like all of us Kiwanians, to see children have better lives worldwide. She told us stories we could relate to, and she was just so real. You can understand her and take what she says and apply it to yourself.

She was presented with the World Service Medal and became a Kiwanian on the stage in front of everyone attending the convention. Afterwards, she said something to me personally that changed who I am and gave me courage and hope to continue in my service. She told me that I am someone who will make a difference. How mind-blowing is that, to recognize the potential in another and voice it. I can’t thank her enough for those kind words. She’s a beautiful person, and all through her fame and her life, she has still managed to be humble, kind and confident. In that one day, in her short speech she managed to become my greatest role model. And with just a few honest words she managed to change a life. It’s a lesson all of us can draw from.

I expected to have fun in Switzerland. I knew it would be a blast, but I didn’t know I would learn so much. The Kiwanis spirit is truly intoxicating. It takes you over and inspires you to do good in this world to the best of your abilities. We’re the movers and the shakers of the world. By attending the convention, I had a chance to see what my mother has been talking about all my life. There are thousands of beautiful places out there, amazing cultures and opportunities. It’s a big, big world we live in, and the possibilities are limitless. All we have to do is take the initiative and go!

For me, that’s what Kiwanis is about. Take the initiative, get out there and make a difference. If every person helps everyone they can, we’ll change the world in no time at all. Not only has Kiwanis provided me with the opportunity to see a new country and learn about a new culture, it has equipped me with skills I can take back to my Key Club to help change my hometown for the better. I can’t thank my Kiwanis family enough for teaching me a lesson that I hope every teenager gets to learn. Even I can make a difference.

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