Joep Heddes (middle row, third from right) poses with some of the region’s other Rotary Youth Exchange students.
By Dan Rankin
“Everybody tells me they had a lot of snow last year, and I believe them – but I want to see it,” says Joep (pronounced Yoop) Heddes, the Dutch Rotary Youth Exchange student currently living in St. Marys with the Strathdees. “The snow we had two or three weeks ago, for me it was a lot and it was cold, but you hear every Canadian saying ‘it’s not cold’ and ‘it’s not a lot of snow’.”
Heddes, 19, says he would be happy with that amount of snow around for the winter. “But, for this weather, I could have stayed home,” he says wryly.
Heddes has nothing but nice things to say about his host families so far in St. Marys. Prior to his stay with the Strathdees, he stayed at the home of DCVI music teacher Rich Sumstad and his wife Kris. “Of course I like going on to the next host family, but I wouldn’t have minded having to be there for another three months,” he said. “They were so nice and had two really nice dogs, Irish wolfhounds. It was awesome.”
Heddes hails from the village of Hem in the Netherlands, which has a population of around 1,000. Hem is located about 50 km north of Amsterdam on the North Holland Peninsula. Immediately to the northeast is the town of Venhuizen (pop. 11,000), and 10 km to the west is the city of Hoorn (pop. 72,000), where Heddes attended high school. Beyond Venhuizen is Enkhuizen, about the size of Stratford, where Heddes’ local Rotary Club is located.
He describes his life back home, where he lives with his parents and two siblings, as “like any other normal person.” A typical day for him could involve a judo class, driving his brother and sister to field hockey practice, and then refereeing a soccer game.
Though he’s a graduate of high school back in Europe, Heddes has been attending DCVI in what he said was his seventh year of high school. “Our education system is different,” he said. In the Netherlands, someone heading right to the job market attends high school for four years, while someone preparing to go to college or university will study for five or even six years before graduation, he explained. “But, it’s fine,” he said. “I want to meet people and make friends. I think coming here is the best way to do that instead of going to, for instance, college which I would have been in, or university, if I stayed home.”
A two-hour drive for a Canadian motorist is not too unusual of a trip, but Heddes pointed out that, from his home back in Hem, if he drove for two hours he would be in Antwerp, Belgium or maybe Dusseldorf, Germany. “You’re in another country if you drive for two hours or three hours,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”
The proximity of different countries means Heddes grew up fairly proficient in three languages. Besides Dutch, Heddes also comfortably speaks English, which was a mandatory class for him since he was 11. “I like English,” he said, noting that he was helped in learning it through some of his favourite books, films, video games and YouTube channels.
“My German is okay,” he adds. “I can read it, speak it, understand it, but don’t ask me to do the grammar stuff. That’s just difficult.”
Heddes has now spent three-and-a-half months in Canada, visiting nearby London numerous times, as well as Toronto, Montreal, Niagara Falls and Owen Sound. He’s also seen Detroit on a trip to a Rotary Conference in St. Clair, Michigan. “In Montreal we did a lot of sightseeing and went out for a nice dinner in a jazz restaurant,” he said. “We ate a lot of nice food and listened to some good music.”
Other trip highlights have included a visit to the Royal Winter Fair and a pair of London Knights games. Looking ahead, he’s heard he might get to attend a Maple Leafs/Senators game during an upcoming visit to Ottawa, as well as some further sightseeing in Toronto including a trip up the CN Tower.
He’s also excited about an upcoming ski conference at Blue Mountain that the region’s other exchange students will be attending. Other Rotary students in the area come from countries including Germany, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Finland, Croatia, Mexico and Brazil, he said. “In January a girl from Australia will be coming to St. Marys,” he added.
Based on his experience so far, Heddes said he would “encourage every single student to go on exchange if they have the possibility to do so.”
“It’s a thing that can change your life and it really opens your view of the world,” said Heddes, whose exchange trip wraps up July 15 next year. “When you go on exchange, you just learn a lot more stuff about other cultures.”
He also cherishes the connections he’s made, both with Canadians and with the other exchange students. “You never know,” he said. “You make these connections, and it could be a friendship that lasts forever. Like, a student i met will say, ‘come to Finland, let’s go have a sauna,’ or something. That would be great.”
Anyone interested in becoming a Rotary Youth Exchange student or acting as a host for one is invited to contact Mark Oliver at email@example.com.