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Wholesale Observations: Valdosta, Ga. Part 1
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

My last two columns have told the story of unexpectedly taking several international students to Atlanta, several years ago, for a special weekend sponsored by Rotary Clubs across the state. This column is about my first introduction to the Georgia Rotary Student Program, nearly twenty years ago. My dad was a Rotarian, many years ago, when Savannah had only the one club. Then the lovely young woman I had the good fortune to marry, many years later, became a member of the McIntosh County Rotary Club, in Darien, through her job with Coastal EMC in Midway. I then participated in many of her club activities, as a “Rotary Spouse.”

And was ever so glad I did, as it gave me an insider’s view of what Rotary was all about. I eventually accepted an invitation to become a member of the Savannah Sunrise Rotary Club, a year or so later. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Rotary International got its start in Chicago in 1905, when four businessmen had the idea to form an association to meet on a regular basis for fellowship. Over the years it has expanded to encompass 1.2 million members in over 160 countries around the world, dedicated to the idea of making a difference in their communities. A huge development, with an astounding impact. Our signature effort and achievement, over the past 30 years or so, is the near-eradication of polio, worldwide. That effort alone has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer “boots on the ground,” giving the polio vaccines in every corner of the globe. It is an astonishing achievement. But not the only one. Just the most amazing one.

Local clubs also have their own local projects, all aimed at improving lives in their communities. In Georgia, Rotary Clubs across the state have partnered in a special program (the GA Rotary Student Program, or GRSP), aimed at bringing students from countries literally across the globe, to colleges and universities in our state, for one year, in an effort to build relationships with future leaders.

The rewards of this partnership have been many, and promise more to come.

When my wife first got involved with Rotary, through the McIntosh County Rotary club, she decided to take on the responsibility of GRSP chair for her club. The second year she did that, her club sponsored a young woman from the tiny country of Estonia, in concert with the St. Simons Rotary Club, which split the cost of the scholarship.

Estonia is one of the three tiny “Baltic countries,” along with Lithuania and Latvia, which were overrun by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, and only recently gained their independence from Russia. Although worries remain about Russian intentions (Vladimir Putin) to “reclaim” that territory.

“Triin” was an interesting young woman, and attended Valdosta State University, as the college in Brunswick at the time was only a two-year community college, and thus not eligible for the GRSP program. Because the SSI host family was not able to make the drive to Valdosta regularly, we took on that responsibility, and got Triin registered, settled in, bank accounts set up, etc. Whatever was required. Plus what we wanted to do.

One of Triin’s suitemates was a sweet young girl from Colombia, South America, Maria, also a GRSP student, sponsored by Valdosta-area Rotary clubs. We actually wound up getting closer to Maria than Triin; although we invited both of them to whatever activities (lunch or dinner, etc.) when we came to town. Sometimes one would be available when the other one wouldn’t; that sort of thing.

One time we invited both of them to a Saturday day trip to Silver Springs, Florida, near Ocala (home of the glass-bottom boats), not too far south of Valdosta, but Triin already had plans, so declined. Which was fine. Maria was happy to come, and invited another GRSP student, Helen, from Scotland, to go in Triin’s place. (At our suggestion.)

Then Triin’s plans fell through, and she wanted to come, after all; but our car was already full by that point, so we were unable to accommodate her. Oh, well!

They had a great time. Silver Springs is notable for its very clear deep-water springs and its glass-bottomed boats; and was the location of a famous TV series in the late 1960’s, “Sea Hunt,” which I remember well. It also is home to a wildlife preserve. It is a very popular destination for visitors.

I will never forget us walking through the entrance, and being met by a young man holding a baby alligator (maybe two feet long, with its snout taped shut), offering us the chance to touch it. Our young friends, petrified, refused, even though his snout was taped shut. I can’t say I blame them. Emotions are often more real than thoughts.

More on our friend Maria from Colombia in my next column.

Rafe Semmes is a proud graduate of the “Original” Savannah High School on Washington Avenue, and UGA. He writes on a variety of topics, and may be reached at

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