Twelve days. Nine flights. Six countries. And one incredible journey.
Five students and two faculty members from the area recently returned from a memorable trip, spending two weeks traveling to Kosovo, a sister country to the state of Iowa.
Jolene Hays, a counselor at Fort Dodge Senior High School and a school TAG advisor, John McBride, traveled with FDSH graduates Meadow Balkenende, Peyton Hays and Kolby Wilson along with St. Edmond’s Tyler McDowell and Southeast Valley’s Drew Stanek.
The group represented the Fort Dodge Youth Culture Club as part of the Sister City Youth Exchange with Gjakova, Kosovo, which is a sister city to Fort Dodge and has sent representatives from the art and business community to the city. It has also hosted several representatives from here since the exchange program began.
This year’s trip ran from July 16 to July 29.
“The goal is to learn about different cultures, but honestly they find out more about themselves,” said Hayes. “They learn that people are just like us all over the world and the stereotypes start to break down and they are more accepting.”
The youth exchange program started in 2017 and sent students to the TOKA International Camp in Kosovo in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The exchange program was put on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TOKA camp began welcoming Iowa students after director Jehona Gjurgjeala visited Fort Dodge Senior High and expressed a desire to have their students introduced to students from other countries.
“Kosovo is such a young country,” said Hayes. They saw a need to empower their youth and wanted to have international students at the camp. Knowing that the youth are our future, we would like to make it a good one. It’s great to see kids mature literally right before our eyes and have those ‘ah ha’ moments. Kids are kids no matter where you go and it’s good for our students to see that.”
This year’s camp was held at the Loyola Gymnasium Campus, a private school just outside of Prizren, Kosovo. Past camps were held at the GÎrmia Recreational Center in Prishtina, but the center was undergoing renovations this year so the camp was moved.
Forty international students from Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania attended the camp along with the five Iowa students.
“That leadership piece is such a good one,” said Hayes. “They learn they can work together with just about anyone.”
The camp focuses on leadership skills and learning about cultures from around the world. The Iowa students presented a cultural night presentation focusing on customs and traditions from the United States, Iowa and Fort Dodge.
Students also lived in dorm rooms with students from other countries and had plenty of opportunities to develop friendships with the students.
“I was not expecting to meet so many great people and make so many friends,” said Balkenende, who will attend Iowa Central Community College this fall. “At the camp I made a lot of friends that I hope to visit soon. Even the people who worked for the city were incredible. I was extremely surprised how fast we bonded. It was like we knew each other for years.”
The students were also part of a community service project, helping design lighted stars as part of Manifesta 14, an art festival held this year in Prishtina, the capital city of Kosovo. Students designed stars then delivered them for display in local establishments.
According to the Manifeta website, Manifesta 14 aims to support the citizens of Kosovo in their ambition to reclaim public space and to rewrite the future of their capital as an open-minded metropolis in the Balkans and in Europe through the development of a new cultural institution. .
Manifesta started July 22 and will run until Oct. 30.
The camp also included a visit to Prizren, one of the oldest cities in Kosovo. There students took part in a scavenger hunt to help learn the history of the city. They also had free time in both Prizren and Prishtina.
“My favorite memory was getting to play volleyball with the people at the camp and getting to have free time in the different cities,” said Balkenende. “I was surprised by how many traditional dances they have and learning them was very fun.”
The five Fort Dodge students and two chaperones also spent three days in Gjakova learning the history of the city and touring both the Gjakova Innovation Center and Bonevet, an innovative learning center in Gjakova.
“We sometimes forget that the US isn’t leading the world in everything. We can learn from others. Just looking at the Innovation Center and Bonevet, we can definitely learn from other countries,” said Hayes.
The Innovation Center focuses on helping small businesses get started in Gjakova. Bonevet is like a giant-sized maker space with students as young as five learning how to use technology and innovation.
The trip home was also eventful with stops in London, Copenhagen, Iceland and then Boston and Chicago. The Iowa delegation was able to spend a day exploring ReykjavÌk, Iceland’s capital along with spending a day in Chicago.
The entire trip was paid for from several different fundraisers, although the group is still looking for support to finish paying for this trip and start planning for next year. Hays said she hopes to return to an annual visit to the camp and Gjakova.
“The goal will be to go back every year and Kosovo sends students here every year. It’s really a great partnership. We learn from them and they are learning from us. Ideally we’d take the best ideas from each and try to mimic them.”
If anyone is interested in helping support this year’s trip or future trips, you can reach out to the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and let them know you’d like to support future TOKA camp visits.