Baxter Lions Club honors exchange students with farewell dinner
The Baxter Lions Club hosted 21 international children for a dinner on Monday, July 25. The group was a variety of boys and girls between the ages of 15-18 from 12 different countries.
BAXTER — The smell of burgers and hotdogs radiated through Camp Vanasek in preparation for the group of international children who were nearing the end of their journey in Minnesota.
The Baxter Lions Club hosted 21 international children with a dinner in honor of their stay in the Brainerd lakes area this summer. The group was a variety of boys and girls between the ages of 15-18 from 12 different countries. Everyone but one girl had been staying in Minnesota for the past few weeks through a program with the Lions Club.
Among the 21 children were Frida Simmonnaes and Enkhmandakh (Emily) Purevsuren, who spent the last three weeks in Baxter with Sandy Johnson. Simmonnaes and Purevsuren said they had a wonderful experience during their time and Johnson said she is sad to see them leave.
“I had a great time with my girls,” Johnson said. “In fact, every time we see each other and have to say goodbye, we cry. And I've been with them every day.”
Johnson described the experience as positive and is excited to host more children in the future. Johnson and the girls also plan on staying in contact after they depart.
“Yeah, we're gonna keep in contact,” said Johnson. “In fact, Emily's got a thing with all my sisters’ names and mine in a group, so we're going to group chat. They fell in love with my sisters too.”
The children were placed with host families from all over Minnesota and experienced very different lifestyles than what they were used to in their home countries. They all stayed with their host families from when they arrived until July 22, when they all met in St. Cloud.
While in St. Cloud, the children had a banquet for all of their host families, where they served traditional food from home countries. From there, they departed from their families and went to experience places like Camp Confidence and Valley Fair.
After a few days of large group activities, the children got together for dinner with the Pillager Lions Club one night and the Baxter Lions Club the next. The food was all prepared by Lions Club members and it was a fairly new experience for a lot of the members.
The Baxter Lions Club hosted a dinner for the participants of this program twice before, but that was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was also the first time one of the members had hosted any participants from this program.
There were mixed reactions from the children when they talked about going home. Many of the participants said that they missed their friends and family, but were sad to leave. Overall, the participants seemed to have a positive experience and would be happy to take part in the program again if possible.
Vanina Devalet, an 18-year-old girl from Belgium, described visiting America as a dream turned into reality.
“I realized it was the first time I wanted to go to the USA and I'm here so it's like a dream which is real life now,” said Devalet. “It's so great to make a dream a reality.”
Devalet was staying in St. Joseph with a host family and wants to become an interpreter in the future. She described Minnesota as quiet and beautiful with kind people.
She said she has a strong desire to learn more about other countries and stay open minded. She would like to come back to America to study abroad or visit a variety of other states.
“I think that if I had the choice to live here, I would stay here,” said Devalet.
Whether it was the children’s first or seventh time in the United States, this program provided them a unique experience with memories to last a lifetime. The children all expressed it was a positive experience and are glad they went on this journey.
SARA GUYMON, Brainerd Dispatch, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5851 or