PARIS — The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has partnered with Greenheart, an international exchange student group, to start a new virtual 4-H club for teens between 12 and 18. The club is called “4-H Passport Around the World SPIN Club” and it aims to connect Maine teens with peers from other countries.

The virtual, mini-exchange program uses Zoom conferencing sessions that introduce Maine kids to the cultures and arts shared by teens from Poland, Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, Indonesia and Bangledesh.

Registration is free and supplies for the projects should be easily obtainable for participants. The presentations will be on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings between Jan. 19 and Feb. 27.

There will be six sessions held over three weeks, each led by a student who will present creative projects that are of cultural importance. The activities include making batik paper, paper chandeliers and paper quilling boxes, calligraphy cards, egg dyeing and henna art.

Faith Morse, a Maine coordinator with Greenheart, came up with the idea as a way to continue global connections among young adults, even as the pandemic has shut down international travel and educational experiences.

“The program is an opportunity for Maine teens who may never have traveled further than Boston to meet a teen from another country,” Morse said. “Kids will gain an understanding of a completely different culture, nationality, religion and ethnicity, with the potential to be life changing.”

Since 1985 Greenheart has facilitated exchange programs for thousands of students from more than 80 countries. It also solicits applications from as many as 68,000 students from around the world for 2,000 education scholarships for U.S. travel. The scholarships have been sponsored by the United States State Department but had to be cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Although the scholarship program is in limbo for now, some students have been able to participate this year; there are 19 living in Maine homes and attending local schools. Morse is hosting two at her North Yarmouth home, teen girls from Germany and France.

Looking for a way to help the sidelined students make cultural connections, Morse reached out to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Sara King, the 4-H Youth Development Professional for Oxford County, and Sara Conant, 4-H Community Education Assistant in Cumberland County, to make it happen.

“We are presenting it for Maine 4-H Project students,” said Conant. “But we can also accommodate kids from other states if they’d like. Previous 4-H membership is not required.

“To start it’s a six week program. We hope to offer additional six week programs with other countries, based on youth interest. The theme for this club is cultural exploration and not STEM [science, technology, engineering and math].”

Once the three came developed the program, the most difficult part for Morse was assigning individual students.

“I had an extremely hard time picking just six kids from just six countries,” she said. “Some were chosen because they were available (timing is challenging with time zones putting them six to 13 hours ahead of Maine). I focused my selection of these first students by the interesting locations they live in, places Maine kids may not already know much about.

“We have plans to continue the series and present more countries in a second series if there is interest.  I loved how excited about the project the [international] students are. It’s their opportunity to talk to U.S. kids. This means so much to them. Much like our kids here, their dreams of high school, prom and graduation have had to change.”

The family of one student presenter, Syuzanna, had to rebuild their lives after the area they lived in Ukraine was annexed by Russia.

Syuzanna, a student living in Kiev, Ukraine, will address Maine students in a new Zoom program, 4-H Passport Around the World SPIN Club on Jan. 19. Supplied photo

“Syuzanna’s family moved to Kiev, leaving behind friends and relatives who are now in a territory of Russia,” said Morse. “She will lead a project that re-imagines the tradition of Ukrainian dyed eggs. It’s called Pysanky. The method of dying eggs is similar to batik – patterns are drawn on the egg with wax using different colors of dye. Used now for Easter eggs, the art form has been a part of the Ukrainian tradition for nearly 8,000 years.”

Syuzanna will also talk to participants about Ukrainian culture and history, including the difficulties of having her country under Russian control for the last six years. The session will include a question and answer period for participants to interact with her.

“Another student, Regina, resides on one of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands,” said Morse. “She will demonstrate crafting batik paper, an art intertwined with the cultural identity of the Indonesian people. Batik uses symbolic patterns for traditions like wishing good luck to families with a newborn child or for funeral processions.”

A high school senior, Sheik Samin, from Bangladesh will talk about his country’s culture and demonstrate the art of henna, a tradition already familiar to many Americans.

“Bangladesh is unique in that it’s the only country in the world created on the basis of language and ethnicity,” Morse said.  “Bengalis make up 98% of the population and it’s the eighth most populous country in the world.

“In Bangladesh, Muslim women use mehndi henna on hands for occasions like weddings and engagements as well as during special religious celebrations.”

Samin, a high school senior from Bangladesh, will do a virtual demonstration on the art of henna on Feb. 27. Supplied photo

Morse became passionate about cultural exchange education when her children participated in it. Her family has hosted 15 students from abroad over the last seven years.

“It was such a fantastic opportunity for my kids,” she said. “They were immersed in other cultures and learned that there is a broader, more varied world that is wonderful and different from Maine.

“My daughter traveled to Europe when she was 16 and stayed in France and Germany for four weeks with her “sisters” who had lived in our home previously. It was a wonderful opportunity and I think it changed her perspective to travel through France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany. And she got to do it while being guided by those we already considered friends and family.”

Morse hopes that the new 4-H club becomes more than just a stop-gap in the time of COVID-19. She wants to see youth global video conferencing projects become an ongoing program.

“This project between Greenheart/4-H University of Maine Cooperative Extension is about more than just introducing a few students from other countries to a group of Maine kids,” she said.  “It’s about opportune changes to the fabric of global society that will benefit us.

Students  interested in participating should visit umaine.edu/4h/4-h-passport-around-the-world-spin-club/ to register. Anyone looking  for more information or reasonable accommodations may contact, Sara King at 207-743-6329 or 800-287-1482 to discuss individual needs. King is based out of the South Paris Cooperative Extension office.

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