O’Fallon’s Rachel Sabella left when she was 15 for a long stay in India, and returned a year older with a new world view, and a slightly more enlightened individual.
“I’m so glad to be home, but I still have mixed feelings because I loved it in India too,” Sabella said after returning May 28.
It isn’t a common occurrence for a young teen to not only travel by herself over 7,000 miles from home, have her ‘sweet sixteen’ birthday with newly acquainted strangers, and live in another country with a host family for a whole year, which to a teenager seems like a lifetime.
But, none of that held one O’Fallon teen back from the “experience of a lifetime.”
With a goal of helping others to keep Polio at bay, having a worldly exposure and being fully immersed in a different culture while learning a new language, ‘Hindi.’
“My time in India was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, and being able to fulfill the Rotary’s main mission of eradicating Polio around the world was an honor. India hasn’t had an active case of it in a few years, but sustaining that is still a must, and one day I woke up and my host dad Viral said we are going to visit a small village and administer drops to children. I thought, ‘this is so awesome to actually be able to make a difference in person,’” Sabella, 16, of O’Fallon, said about her year-long stay abroad on a different continent.
How was a teen able to manage a trip of such magnitude and length?
Well, it wasn’t easy by any means, Sabella said.
“I was homesick a lot in the beginning few months,” Sabella said. “I just remember feeling very alone, and it didn’t help that people were speaking a different language, and in India there are tons of different languages and dialects, but the most common is Hindi, but my host family spoke Marathi.”
She not only had to apply and go through a long, tedious selective application process, but she had to also be chosen through the Central States Rotary Youth Exchange Program (CSRYE).
“The Rotary Club encouraged participants to write daily in a journal to help remember what we learned over the course of our visit, and help us through the difficult times, and I’ve tried having a diary before and I never really kept up with it, but while I was India I wrote something almost every single day, and it helped me work through my feelings,” she said.
Having a birthday in the first few weeks of her stay, Sabella said was “strange and different because she really didn’t know anyone or have friends.” But her host family celebrated her life by taking her out to a lavish dinner and gifting her with formal clothing, she said.
“It was nice they made me feel at home and special,” Sabella said.
Living in the the largest city of Indore within the state of Madhya Pradesh along the western fringes, but situated in the vincinity of the Indian subcontinent, Sabella said she traveled a lot beginning with a south tour in Hyderabad, Chennai and Mahabalipruam.
Indore, commonly referred to as the educational and commercial hub of the state, is similar to the metropolitan St. Louis area, but with five times the population, according to Sabella. The country alone has nearly two million as of the 2011 population census.
Rotary offered numerous travel opportunities throughout the year which allowed Sabella to see the country from southern to northern tip, and much in between.
“My favorite spot we traveled to was the Himalayan Mountains up north, but it was a tie with the city of Ooty, near Mysore in southern India, which is called a hill station,” Sabella said.
The group completed a 10-day trek through the mountains in the beginning of May, which Sabella said, “made my blood rush, and was so fulfilling in so many ways.”
“The tour guides weren’t very comfortable with speaking English while we were on our trek through the mountains, so I actually helped them translate, which was really cool,” Sabella said.
Colonized by the British, Sabella described what purpose the hill stations served the natives.
“In the summers get very hot there, so during that time people would travel up into the mountains and spend their time there to escape the heat and there’s not much to do in the hill stations, so they’re just relaxing and the weather is kinda cool and sometimes misty,” Sabella said.
Sabella said there are also lots of huge rolling fields of tea in Ooty too.
“When we toured one of the manufacturing/packaging plants, you walk into an overwhelming wall of tea aromas,” she said.
When asked if she drinks tea, Sabella said, “I do now. Over there most people drink Chai tea two to four times a day, but it’s not like the American Chai tea you get at Starbuck’s, it’s authentic, and it’s really good for the body.”
Staying with the Vednere family, which she calls her host family, Sabella said she became very close with the members of the family, especially the host father Viral, who runs a three generational family owned and operated pharmacy. Avantika, host mom, has a degree in Psychology and taught at the local university, which is somewhat uncommon for women to have jobs.
“They are very forward thinking. She has a dream of opening a mental health facility near where they live someday,” Sabella said.
Viral is also a Rotary International member.
“We lived with Viral’s mother Aai, and that is the cultural tradition there for the son of the family to live with his mother (for life). Aai is Marathi for ‘mother,’ so really everyone around the house called her that,” Sabella said.
Sabella described herself as having two sisters and two dogs while in India. Vishwangi, 16, was also studying abroad simultaneously in Michigan, and there was Vainavi, 11. The two dogs were yellow labs named Dollar and Penny.
“She was in America and I was here. Sometimes we would each sneak up on one another FaceTime chats. We at least got to know each other for about 10 days prior to her leaving,” Sabella said. “She helped me get acquainted with Indore better, but it was a shame she left for America so soon, but I get to see her in July during the CSRYE Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., which I went last year before heading to India, and this time I will attend to help prepare other students prepping to go to India and other Southeastern Asian countries — I can’t wait to see her!”
FaceTime and texting was one way Sabella kept in touch with her family and hometown.
“At one point I had to ask my mom to stop sending me photos of American food,” Sabella said laughingly. “The food was good, but everything was very spicy and took some getting used to, plus they are mostly vegetarian over there, so unless we went out to order food, my family didn’t eat meat.”
Sabella said a typical meal in India consisted of rice or tortillas called ‘roti’ with one or two vegetable side dishes.
“I loved the street market food that was cooked right there for you,” Sabella said.
Sabella said another thing she had to get accustomed to were the toilets — which were not really toilets for sitting like in the western world, but rather were holes in the ground requiring the user to squat above it when relieving oneself.
“Before going to India, I used to loathe porter potties or johnny on the spots, but know I can truly say ‘I can handle anything,’” Sabella said with a bellowing laugh and flushed cheeks.
While in India, Sabella said she attended school the whole year, which O’Fallon Township High School has assisted in tailoring the transfer of classes taken in India and made them applicable here.
“Thankfully I’ll be in the same class as those I’ve been with for years, and will be on schedule with my course load,” Sabella said.
Since she wasn’t going to have too much of a social life, Sabella said she set a goal for herself.
“I decided I was going dedicate time and attention to learning the Hindi language, and so I did, and I got pretty good at it too,” Sabella said.
To keep up with her Hindi language skill, she plans to rely on the internet and Bollywood movies.
“Most of the good schools there are private schools there and they speak English, but most of the students still aren’t very comfortable with speaking it,” she said.
Reflecting on the demographics there, Sabella said India is definitely “the land of extremes with a lot of poverty and a lot of wealth among the population.”
“It’s heartbreaking when you see children there begging for food and wearing tattered clothes, but I came to the conclusion that, in life, it’s okay if you can’t save or help everyone, but we do what we can and that has to be good enough,” Sabella said.
Why Rotary Club?
Sabella said her interest all started with her childhood, when she was about six.
“I have been attending O’Fallon Sunrise Rotary meetings with my mom (Kim Sabella, owner of Wolfersberger Funeral Home) for as long as I can remember,” she said.
She said, a fond Rotary memory was when she was little and was the club meeting speaker for that day, and “I stood on a chair and told jokes, little kid ones. So I kinda of grew up around the Inbound students, who are the ones who are from other countries living in the states for a year.”
Sabella recalls going to events and Cardinals baseball games with her family and the Inbounds.
“We’ve always taken them to fun things and family reunions and hung out with them,” Sabella said.
Last year, she said she attended Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) banquet.
“There were students there called Rebounds and Rotex, which are basically the alumni. I am now a Rebound, but after a year I’ll be a Rotex. They were speaking at the event, basically trying to recruit people. And, that’s when I decided I wanted to do it, I thought to myself, ‘why not?’ Sabella explained.
Sabella said each district allows students to create a destination wish list of about 30 options, which about 15 were knocked out based on age and language restrictions.
“The Central States District I’m in does a really great job at matching students with their choice spot as much as possible. My first choice was Australia, and my second choice was India, so I was pretty excited,” Sabella said.
CSRYE exchanges with 45 countries.
“I’ve become more independent and confident in myself and with my communication skills — I needed them to survive over there, so it was great to come out of my shell in a sense and exercise that,” Sabella said. “Overall, I feel a lot more mature then I did a year ago, and I don’t think I would’ve grown as much as I have without my parents trust and faith in me, the Rotary Club allowing this opportunity and the support and love of my host family.”