Student exchanges bring lifetime bonds

Posted 1/4/23

Memories bridge distances.

That was evident last Monday when Gordon Wilmot called with the news that Alejandro Camara, two of his children and a granddaughter would be arriving at his Warwick Neck …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Student exchanges bring lifetime bonds


Memories bridge distances.

That was evident last Monday when Gordon Wilmot called with the news that Alejandro Camara, two of his children and a granddaughter would be arriving at his Warwick Neck home that afternoon. I haven’t seen Alejandro, who lives in Bolivia, in more than three decades.

But time can’t erase some things and Alejandro’s smile and love for music are two of them. I was looking forward to reconnecting and according to Gordon’s calculations he expected the former Rotary exchange student we had both hosted for four months would pull in from Virginia around 4:30. That didn’t happen. Alejandro and members of the family were driving from West Virginia and they pulled in much later, exhausted after a 12-hour drive and ready for dinner and sleep.

Alejandro was one of many foreign students we hosted over the years. They came from Asia, South America, Europe and Africa. Through connections with International House, some stayed for a week or less while others like Elena Muyo from Spain lived with us for a year attending Pilgrim High School. She’s an extension of the family. I attended her wedding in Spain and we stay in touch especially at this time of year.

With the risk of repeating the story, one of the most enigmatic visitors we hosted was Ken Nishimura from Japan. He was a journalist and we signed up for the program expecting one of our reporters would be welcomed to Japan, which didn’t happen. Ken’s English was limited and while it seemed like a great idea for him to write about comparisons between our countries it wasn’t practical. Nonetheless, Vets High School agreed to take him in for about three weeks for a story. Ken looked young for his age and was befriended by many students. He also hit it off with the staff although we would look bewilderedly at one another trying to figure out what he was saying.

Reporter Joe Baker had the knack of deciphering what he wanted, which in most cases was to attend a rock concert. We soon learned he was writing concert reviews for his paper in Japan. Joe decided the best thing he could do for Ken and for all of us was to find him a car. That wasn’t difficult, since we saw the ads before being published in the paper. Joe found Ken a burgundy Chevy Impala for $150.

Soon, we didn’t see that much of Ken. He would roll in early in the morning, be around for dinner and then off to another concert.

One Friday afternoon, I received a frantic call from Ken. He was stumbling over his English and kept repeating, “I no put in P.” I had no idea what he was trying to tell me.

“I put in ‘R.’ I hit house…Police come.” Finally, I got the picture. He had arrived at our driveway to find it blocked by a trash can that had been emptied earlier in the day. Ken got out to move it, but instead of putting the car in park, put it in reverse. The car came to a stop when it hit our neighbor’s house.

Nothing as dramatic happened when Alejandro visited. There was less of a language barrier and while he loved music, Alejandro stuck close to home to play his charango, an instrument about the size of a ukulele with far more strings made from an armadillo shell. He was good and while staying with Gordon or it could have been the Earl Pearsons, who also hosted him for four months, he was under the spotlight at the Warwick Musical Theatre as a guest performer. Alejandro returned to Bolivia were his musical talent made him a national celebrity. He performed at concerts throughout South America and made numerous recordings. And as I learned last week at some point he was appointed to serve in the Bolivian consulate in Miami for a year.

The job entailed a lot of paperwork. “I much prefer music to politics,” he confided.

Alejandro’s visit served to inspire both Gordon and my children to become exchange students. Jack went to France, Ted to Spain. It was through Ted’s visit with the Muyo family that we met Elena and she ended up spending a year with us. 

“My son Gordon left as a Rotary Exchange student to Mexico,” Gordon writes in an email. “He lived with a Mexican family there for a year, absorbing the culture and making international friends. Having mastered the language that year, he eventually became a missionary in Costa Rica for five years, and the Pastor of his own church in Aguascalientes Mexico for the past 26 years. He is married to a wonderful Mexican lady.  So... Alejandro’s visit in 1972 eventually led to a lifetime profession for my son.”

But why this family pilgrimage to United States and Rhode Island after all these years? Alejandro was not passing through the state and thought it would be nice to renew acquaintances. He purposely brought family members here to meet us.

On Tuesday, Mayor Frank Picozzi welcomed the group to Warwick – inviting them into his office where they took photos and Alejandro told of staying with the Wilmots and attending Toll Gate. That night Gordon and his wife Marilyn hosted a dinner where the extended Wilmot family and friends joined Alejandro and his family.

Arriving late, Alejandro’s son, Cesar, pulled me aside to explain how this spur of the moment trip to this country came about. Unknown to Gordon and me, sometime in the recent past Alejandro was diagnosed with prostate cancer and successfully underwent treatment. While undergoing treatment Alejandro told his family he wanted to see us at least one more time. When the opportunity arose, his children didn’t let it slip away.

I now understood Alejandro’s tear-filled eyes and extended hug on seeing him after all these years. After dessert we gathered in the living room. Alejandro played the charango and Cesar the guitar. His daughter Lucero sang. It was a concert that transformed into a sing along. Gordon repertoire was impressive and Alejandro and his family quickly tuned in after Gordon opened with opening chords.

While memories bridge time, music can bring us together. Alejandro has been doing that for as long as I’ve known him.

Rotary International youth exchanges are priceless!

students, bonds


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here