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South Africa service year opens eyes, hearts

Orono, Minnesota, teen gets his horizons broadened

For a high school senior from Orono, Minnesota, being a Rotary exchange student in Johannesburg, South Africa, was an eye opener. It was amazing to Eric DeLuca to see thousands of South Africans worshipping outdoors. It became clear very quickly they were outdoors not because they wanted to experience the nice weather. The teenager told Metro Lutheran, “There’s no money to build churches when the people are living in cardboard boxes.”
DeLuca, a busy student and member of Christ Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Maple Plain, spent a year in South Africa on a Rotary International Long-Term Youth Exchange program. While there he attended high school but also worked at service projects with students at Mawila Primary School in the crowded So-weto district. In that neighborhood, thousands and thousands of people live in merchandise cartons or other makeshift shelters.
He also worked with SARDA (South African Riding for the Disabled Association), which provides horseback-riding experiences for disabled children. His yearlong experience was sponsored by the Orono Rotary club.
At Mawila Primary School, DeLuca and other Rotary-sponsored students worked to repair a school library that had been built earlier in a student-directed program called Rotary Exchange Projects. Eric served as vice president of the program while there, helping to rescue the resource center from vandals. Before his arrival, someone had broken in, stealing computers and destroying books. He and other Rotary students in-stalled new computers and software, brought in new books and installed a security system.
DeLuca said the school, which was designed for about 200 students, served 500 young scholars at the time he was there. An earlier Rotary group had painted school classrooms but there were no desks or chalkboards. Students simply sat on the floor. DeLuca said furnishing the school is a project that may be underway now.
The riding program required that each child have an attendant to assist in the riding experience. The Rotary students also cleaned horse stalls and did repairs.
While in Johannesburg, Eric lived with three different families. This rotation is a strategy used by Rotary International, providing U.S. students the opportunity to experience cultural variety.
Explained DeLuca, there are 11 national languages in South Africa, a culturally diverse nation. Though apartheid [legalized separation of the races] ended in 1994, DeLuca explained there is still a lot of separation between blacks and whites.
The homes in which he stayed had barbed-wire fences, gates and security systems. Transportation was a major challenge in Johan-nesburg, an enormous metropolitan area. Public transportation was not considered safe. DeLuca said the challenge was always finding a ride to where he needed to go. The school in Soweto, for example, was a 45-minute ride from the homes where he stayed.
On his first visit to Mawila Primary School with 20 other exchange students, the truck in which DeLuca and the others were riding was stopped by local police. They were advised it was probably not safe for 20 white teenagers to be traveling alone in Soweto. So, the police offered to escort them to their destination.
In addition to attending high school and doing service projects, DeLuca was able to visit several other countries in Africa, along with other exchange students. A Rotary chaperone escorted them.
While in the country, the Orono teen played some sports that were new to him: cricket, squash, rugby and field hockey. He also rode an elephant (see June Metro Lutheran, page 28) and saw rhinoceros, lions and leopards.
Eric DeLuca’s stay in South Africa lasted from July 2004 to July 2005. His parents, Mike and Melanie, and 8-year-old brother Andy visited him there in March. Prior to the South African experience, Eric was involved in the Teens in Mission (TIM) program at Christ Lutheran Church in Maple Plain. He’s active in tennis, student council and drama (recently playing the part of a munchkin in a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Orono High School).