A Not So Foreign Exchange Program

A Not So Foreign Exchange Program

Great Falls residents John and Heidi Lesinski give students from northwest Kansas a taste of life in the big city.

When Heidi Lesinski graduated from Decatur Community High School in 1983, she was ready to get out of small town America. She loved her hometown of Oberlin, Kansas, but she wanted to seek out other opportunities.

"Everybody knows your business, but it was such a great place to grow up," said Lesinski, who currently lives in Great Falls.

For the past five years, Lesinski and her husband John have been enabling other Decatur Community High School students to get a taste of life in the big city.

"She was visiting family back in that area and she stopped in to see the principal — it's the same principal that was there when she was there," said John Lesinski. "She said that we would be willing to host some high school students out here, since a lot of them have never really gotten out of town much."

As a result, the Lesinski family has hosted six students, and one teacher chaperone and their spouse every spring. The Lesinski's take the students on a whirlwind tour of Washington D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland.

"It's a pretty aggressive program," said John Lesinski.

THIS YEAR'S GROUP arrived on Monday, March 20, and they were promptly whisked off to Ft. McHenry national monument and historic shrine in Maryland.

"They are so tired because they leave their high school at noon on Sunday, but they don't show up here until 4 p.m. on Monday," said Heidi Lesinski.

The trip is extra long due to the fact that the students must go from Decatur to Kansas City just to get to an airport. After Ft. McHenry, everyone headed back to the Lesinski residence in Great Falls to rest and try Indian food for the first time.

"We always like to do some kind of ethnic dinner since a lot of them have never had different types of food before," said John Lesinski.

On Tuesday, the students had a jam-packed day. They had a tour of the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery. After lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, they stopped by Ford's Theatre, the ESPN Zone, the Willard Hotel and the White House. They also took a quick peek at the Museum of American History. Arlington Cemetery seemed to resonate the most with everyone.

"I'm thinking about going to West Point so I liked the military history part of it," said senior Denton Bailey, 18.

TEACHER CHAPERONE Tim Breth, a junior high school math instructor at Decatur Community High School, was also taken with Arlington Cemetery.

"I was really impressed with the changing of the guard," said Breth. "I'm a little worn out, but thoroughly impressed and blown away."

For Breth and his wife Brenda, this was their first chance to visit any place so far from northwest Kansas.

"It was such a great day — it was fabulous," said Brenda Breth. "Just to be in the Pentagon, standing in the same place where that plane hit. We would never, ever gotten this opportunity any other way."

On Wednesday, the group took a tour of the Capitol and the Supreme Court, visited the Smithsonian museums and made a trip to the Holocaust museum. After dining on Domino's Pizza, they were then taken on a night tour of the monuments. Thursday was spent visiting Mt. Vernon and Annapolis, and Friday they were treated to a performance by the Capitol Steps. They also get the chance to visit Great Falls National Park.

"By the time it's all done, the kids are exhausted and we're exhausted, but we love it and the kids love it," said John Lesinski.

THE STUDENTS apply to go on the trip by writing an essay explaining why they would benefit from it.

"And you have to be on student council," said junior Aaron Helm, 17.

This year's group consisted of four boys and two girls. Four of the students live in the town of Oberlin, which has a population of 2,000.

"It has two stoplights," said Heidi Lesinski.

The other two live in Norcatur, a town which has a population of 100.

"At the Pentagon they said that a small town is 23,000," said Helm.

Although some of the students had traveled to other cities before, the dichotomy between their hometown and Washington D.C. still made an impression.

"There are a lot of people, a lot of cars and a lot of traffic," said senior Nikki Lincoln, 17.

Lincoln says she definitely plans to move out of Oberlin as soon as she is able.

"It's boring and there aren't any opportunities for us for work," she said.

Junior Breck Simonsson, 16, says that in their community, "you know everybody."

Although all six of the students seemed anxious to get out of rural America, they are nonetheless appreciative of the kind of life it has offered them.

"It's safe, people have family values," said Bailey.

Heidi Lesinski may have wanted to escape the smallness of Oberlin, but she admits that she enjoys the rural feel of Great Falls.

"I duplicate that in Great Falls," she said. "Part of its draw is that small town feel."

The students share Lesinski's sentiments.

"I wouldn't mind living some place like this that is still kind of rural," said Bailey.

Still Lesinski says there are some things that just cannot be compare to life in a town so small.

"I miss the sidewalks and the wide streets. I miss kids being able to ride their bikes around all day without their parents having to worry about them. I miss my friends, my job and my school being less than five minutes away," said Lesinski.

John and Heidi Lesinski plan to continue their program for as long as possible, as they find it to be as rewarding for them as it is for the students.

"I will never forget the first time that I was in Washington D.C.," said Heidi Lesinski. "I had never felt like that before in my life and I wanted to share that feeling."