Former Rotary youth exchange student often returns to Mitchell

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Sometimes it takes a little reminder to show how great a country we live in.

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This past July 1st, as Canada marked its 155th birthday, Johanna (Gundel) Mahler, a 31-year-old native of Switzerland timed her sixth visit to Mitchell and West Perth so it would coincide with the occasion.

She loves Canada. She loves West Perth. And, for good measure, she loves the Rotary Club of Mitchell.

“I’m a big fan of the Rotary Club in Mitchell,” she said during a brief telephone interview a few days after her assistance during the Rotary’s July 1 festivities, the early stages of her month-long vacation. “They’re such great people. Many members became very good friends of mine that I still visit with today and keep in touch.

“It was obvious to me that when I came and it’s Canada Day, and knowing the Rotary Club is involved in the celebrations, I wanted to help,” she said.

Mahler (nee Gundel) first came to Mitchell in the late summer of 2006 as a 16-year-old from a town just outside of Zurich in Switzerland. She spent her Grade 11 year at Mitchell District high school (MDHS) and split her time between three host families, all part of the Rotary Club’s youth exchange program.

She got involved at MDHS, playing a wide variety of sports, was part of the drama program and the musical ‘Bye, Bye Birdie,’ sang in the choir and played in the jazz band. She totally immersed herself to life in West Perth and she enjoyed it so much, has kept in touch with many high school friends, two of her host families and many Rotarians upon her return visits.

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“I really liked that part about Canada as your hobbies, sports and music happens at school with your friends at school,” she said, saying she was used to extracurricular activities outside of school hours as it was solely an academic focus during the day. “I really enjoyed the community that that created while I was here.”

This year, newly married to husband Matthias, the couple are expecting their first child in January. So she wanted to coordinate this excursion with Canada’s birthday celebration, and assisted the Rotary Club during their annual Canada Day festivities at the Mitchell Lions Park.

“I was really happy here … I’m definitely a country bum and I wouldn’t be too happy in the city,” she said of her Rotary experience. “It was a really good place for me to be.”

She said she first became aware of the Rotary program in 2005 when her family hosted a girl from Clifford, Ontario, someone she still keeps in touch with today and is considered the “older sister I always dreamed of having and never did.” Later she applied to the program with her first choice somewhere in Canada; settling on Mitchell which isn’t too far from the Wellington County community.

After returning to Switzerland after her year at MDHS, she studied Scandinavian languages with a focus on linguistics, then became a certified high school English and Swedish teacher. A few years later, though, she attended Oxford University and studied theology and today works for a Christian organization in the Zurich area.

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The relationships Johanna has made over the last 15 years are “life changing”, she said, and having been exposed to this country allowed her to be herself during her formative teenage years.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why I had such a great experience in Canada and why I kept coming back is that my personality really fit well in the Canadian small-town culture,” she said. “I fit a lot better here in Canada than I did in Switzerland culture-wise and personality-wise.

“Canada always made me feel I could be myself.”

Mahler says she can’t quite comprehend that it’s been 15 years since she arrived to Mitchell the first time, but praises the Rotary club for making it happen.

“I just love the whole notion of what Rotary was doing, staying engaged and involved. I think the Rotary program is really excellent for that because they make an effort to work with us as exchange students. They always said we’re ambassadors for our country and they made us give speeches and talk about our countries and our way of living … I learned a lot through this whole Rotary program. Not only have I met a lot of people but I really grew that year and it was so impactful in the choices that I’ve done later on in my life.

“It really feels like these are lifelong relationships I’ve built here,” she continues. “It’s really great and surprising to me that it’s worked this way. Even the time difference and able to stay in touch with so many people without seeing each other regularly. It’s really fantastic.”

The pandemic did put a crimp on travel plans to return to Canada but she admitted “it really was time to come back again.”

Current Rotary President Bert Vorstenbosch, Jr. said the youth exchange program is running, but their club is currently not actively sending or hosting anyone. However, if there are interested parties they can contact a Rotarian or visit the club’s Facebook page for more information.

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