Melissa: Unbelievable Strength
A Lions Youth Exchange Fairy Tale
Can you imagine being twenty-two years old and blind? To live with your mother in Croatia and have no employment, no school and no idea what the future might behold? To live with a rare physical condition that disables you to walk because of a rare orphan disease. You spend most of your time with a special computer (or a phone) especially designed for blind people. This is how you find out about Lions Youth Exchange.
„To create and foster a spirit of understanding among the people of the world,“ sounds quite perfect for your situation.
What to do now? You decide to contact the youth exchange chairperson in Croatia and convince her to find a spot in Austria. You fill out the form; English skills “good”, other languages: German “good”.
Then the first answer arrives from Austria. There seems to be a special camp for blind people in Italy - but you refuse. You only want to go to Austria because you have known Austria for a long time as you had many surgeries there.
For years in your life, you had to go every week to Austria, together with your mum. On Wednesday you left your home in Croatia, went to Vienna, slept in the car and Thursday morning you went to the hospital to receive a special treatment. Then back to Croatia: 550 km – one way, year after year. You trust Austria.
You’ve had horrible experiences in your life. At the age of eleven, during one of your countless surgeries, something went wrong with the anesthesia. You woke up blind. You and your mum had to be very strong. You had to learn to live a new life from scratch. The life of a blind person. Nothing will ever be the same.
At the age of 22, you decide to go to Austria again. You try to find a new path in life and reject all of your mother’s concerns.
The Austrians accept you. You book a ticket for the bus, take the ride from Umag to Graz. Alone. You already know that your host-mother will be waiting for you, although only knowing her from a few message exchanges.
And there she waits, welcoming you whilst trying to communicate with you, first in German, then in English - but you answer in Croatian.
Now you know, that your host-mother has realized that there is no common language between you two, and to communicate with hands and feet will not be an option as you cannot see her. Your host-mother looks for your suitcases in front of the bus. She tries asking you but you can’t understand her.
The big, big trial for „to create and foster the spirit of understanding among the people of the world“ has just started…
What followed during the hosting week?
· Incredibly supportive host-sisters (Caterina from Italy and Ida from Norway).
· Communication beyond vision and language.
· Experience in riding a tandem bike.
· Swimming with your host-sisters, cooking, laughing, smiling.
· Singing, dancing and wearing traditional Austrian clothes.
· Learning every day new words in English and German.
· Visiting Salzburg with the other host-families and their youth and listening to „Mozart with all senses“.
· Being part of the group.
· Learning to stop saying „sorry“ every single moment.
· Meeting an amazing young boy from Croatia who helps all the time when you really need translations.
· You feel so happy to be part of the youth exchange.
After the hosting week your host-mother tells you that you will not be able to continue participation in the camp, it seems impossible as there will not be enough support during the program. The host-family week has brought you endless joy but now you feel sad not to be able to carry on. You book a return bus to Croatia. Only sad.
· The youth exchange chairperson suggests that you could come back with your mum for the evening of nations.
· You could stay with the group for the second week.
· Immediately, you feel joy. And now you can also allow yourself to show how exhausted you are whilst enjoying a week of regeneration.
· You come back to the camp in one week time.
· All of the participants take you in as a part of the group. They hug you, they kiss you. They lead you, they take your hand and guide you.
· You teach them how to treat a blind person well. They teach you singing, dancing, laughing...
During the following week with the other campers you attend dance lessons, choir rehearsals, guided tours for blind people, all kinds of workshops and have multiple special moments. You meet incredibly sensitive staff members and get to enjoy an evening of a final concert where you sing proudly. Before leaving there are lots and lots of tears to be shed.
· The Lions from Croatia and Austria took great efforts to find a way to fulfill your biggest wish: to get an education for blind people in Austria
· A couple of days before Christmas the Austrian and Croatian Lions come and bring you the biggest gift you ever could imagine: you can come to Austria!!!
Now, you have the opportunity to come back with your mum to Austria, but this time around you are not headed to the hospital. You are going to the school you have been dreaming about for a very long time. You will receive an education in Austria and learn everything you need to live an independent life. Your mum, the bravest woman you can imagine, can start calming down.
And who is writing this story?
Your host-mum is writing this story.
Your host-mum you’ve brought beyond her limits.
Your host-mum who is totally in love with your incredible personality, with your incredible power, with your incredible hunger for life.
Your host-mum who admires your mum for her love for you. For her braveness.
Your host-mum who has a big wish: that you continue your way.
Gaby, your host-mother from Austria
Melissa, you are such a great person, so brave and fearless. We learned so much from you. Thank you for the experiences we could share with you! Your host-father Fritz – MD-114 and D-114M chairperson Austria
From the very first contact with Melissa, I did my best to support my family hosting her and make her participation possible with the amazing help of our camp staff. I'm just proud of everyone involved making this fairytale become true - especially of Melissa! David, host brother, MD-114 chairperson Austria
Melissa is simpy amazing…Eli, host-sister, Austria
Some of the campers had blue bracelets provided by a Lionsclub. Melissa could feel that by touch when somebody held her hand and therefore knew about it. She wanted to have one but they were no longer available. I had a bracelet as well. It was made from the same material although it was white and not from Lions. The bracelet was from the “Grazathlon” – the famous dirt-run in Graz, where our Camp took part. “I beat the city”, was written on it and I decided to give Melissa this bracelet as a gift. I explained to her what it stood for and the meening was translated into Croatian. When it was put on to her arms she started to cry very emotionally. Melissa taught me that giving is more valuable than taking. Felix, host-brother and camp-staff, Austria
I first met Melissa at the Traditional afternoon - she was dancing, singing and smiling, together with all other participants. Sharing moments during the host family period with Melissa, she was an amazing example of bravery and courage. Susanna, 2nd VDG, D-107B Finland
Melissa is been like a sister for me. She’s a wonderful girl. With her strength, her courage and her happiness to stay all together and create something good, she taught all of us that no one needs to have a perfect pair of eyes, but that the point is looking the world and knowing other cultures with heart’s eyes. Caterina, Italy, host-sister and camper
Melissa was and are a lovely girl with a lot of courage and happiness. She has a really interesting way to look at the world and saw the goodness in everybody. She made such an impression on me and I am still in contact with my sister. My favourite moment with Melissa was the bike ride. Ida, Norway, host-sister and camper
During the last workshop, Melissa's mother said: when we arrived, we drove into the unknown - as if it was through a dark tunnel. Now after this week's time, we will drive back through a brightly shining wolrd. I believe Melissa has brought a lot of light and warmth to the camp and the camper have come to life merely through her presence. Bruno, Campstaff, Austria
Melissa has a strong will and a tender heart. She gave me a lesson on courage, trust and true friendship. Meeting her was one of my greatest privileges. Thank you Melissa. Erla, Iceland, campstaff
Getting to know Melissa showed me once again that anything is possible. I experienced, that music and true warmth are the languages we all understand and can speak. Melissa was a support and source of strength and joy wherever she was. I am truly grateful that I got to know her. Sara-Estelle, Germany, campstaff
Melissa is such a great person. Her kindness and joy are still in my heart and i think i'll never forget this. When we walked in the garden she was so happy to have us all with her and I was so thankful of having funny conversations with her. I'm really happy to have met her and i hope to meet Melissa in the near future! Carmen, Italy, camper