Roberta Parissi

Roberta do Valle Parissi, a Rotary exchange student from Brazil, finished her senior year at North Side High School in Fort Wayne this year. Parissi is one of many exchange students who couldn’t return home in the month of May due to the COVID-19 virus.

Whether extracurricular activities will be back to normal at Indiana schools this fall remains to be seen, but students expecting to study abroad in August are already seeing their plans come to a halt.

Rotary clubs across the state have been barred from accepting incoming students or sending local youth abroad for the next year in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. It will be the first time in 30 years the Rotary Club of Fort Wayne hasn’t hosted a foreign exchange student.

“It’s going to be very strange. We have a pattern we go through in terms of identifying host families, getting them admitted to the school district, helping them get their visa and planning for their arrival and learning about their country — and we’re not going to be doing any of that this year,” said Sharon Pohly, youth exchange officer for the downtown Fort Wayne club.

Fortunately Rotary Club of Fort Wayne didn’t have any outbound students overseas when the pandemic hit, but it has had a great deal of effect on Roberta do Valle Parissi, an exchange student from Brazil that the Fort Wayne club hosted through the 2019-20 school year.

Like many area high school seniors, Parissi has had to miss out on her graduation commencement and senior prom, among other special life moments put on hold for the Class of 2020. Instead she has had to spend her last few months in the U.S. sheltering in place with her host parents, Adam and Tabitha Craig.

“With quarantine and social distancing, we can’t do a whole lot, but her host family has been top notch,” Pohly said. “They’re a lovely host family and they’re doing great things with her, but that’s kind of a disappointing exchange. She should have the chance to be out seeing people and going to prom and those sorts of things.”

Parissi completed her senior year at North Side High School where she participated in the usual U.S. high school pastimes, playing for the school’s volleyball team, taking dance classes, going to Friday night football games and seeing snow for the first time.

“Despite this coronavirus thing, it was really fun,” she said.

Parissi had a classmate from Ukraine and another from Surinam this year — both of whom returned home before Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order in March. Parissi wasn’t as lucky, and couldn’t find a flight back to her hometown of Florianopolis, Brazil, until June 9. One of Parissi’s friends and a member of the same Rotary club in Brazil is currently quarantined with her own host family in California.

“A lot of them stayed,” Parissi said. “I haven’t been doing much because there’s not much to do. When there’s sun, I try to go outside and sit in the sun. I’ve also been watching a lot of Netflix, and I’ve read a book.”

Although Rotary Club of Fort Wayne didn’t have an inbound student identified for the upcoming year, Pohly said the downtown club, along with Summit City South Rotary Club, had planned to sponsor a high school junior slated to attend school in Sweden. Though he’ll have another opportunity to study abroad during the 2021-22 school year, “Senior year is kind of special, so it’s a tougher decision to be gone your senior year than your junior year,” Pohly noted.

Rotary clubs don’t directly fund exchange students’ trips, but they’re relatively unique among other exchange programs in that they are entirely volunteer run, Pohly said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, area clubs have been looking for ways to support local efforts against the virus.

The Rotary clubs of Fort Wayne and Summit City South have partnered with Sangam Charitable Foundation of Fort Wayne to create a COVID-19 relief fund to purchase personal protective equipment for Fort Wayne hospitals and local health-related charities. They asked area residents to consider making a tax-deductible donation to the newly established fund through May 15. All contributions will stay in the Fort Wayne region.

“We want to thank and assist our vital health care workers and believe that providing PPE would be a way to help keep them safe while they work the front lines of this pandemic,” said Holli Seabury, president of the Rotary Club of Fort Wayne.

The Sangam Charitable Foundation — whose board is made up entirely of local medical professionals — supports area charitable, educational, religious and cultural activities. Sangam board members will order the difficult-to-obtain PPE through their approved medical suppliers.

Funds will initially be used to purchase 1,000 isolation gowns and face masks, which will be distributed to Lutheran Health Network and Parkview Health hospitals for frontline staff use. Additional funds will be used to purchase PPE for staff at Matthew 25, Neighborhood Health and Rescue Mission.

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