Valeria with Schuster family

Valeria (center) stands with the Schuster family, (from right to left) Earl and Gorgann Schuster, their daughter Allison, and her husband, Chris.


Gladwin may not seem like it would be a frequent destination for a world traveler,  but in the case of Valeria Bonaparte of Buenos Aires, Argentina, it has become a home away from home. Georgann Schuster and her husband, Earl of Gladwin have maintained a close relationship with Valeria ever since they hosted her as part of a foreign exchange student program in 1984. 

“Her birthday is right around Thanksgiving time, so each year, when our family gathers for a holiday meal, we give her a call,” said Georgann. “She calls us ‘mum and dad,’ which really shows how close we’ve become.”

Since her first visit, Valeria and the Schusters have gathered for family visits and even family weddings.

“The last time I was here was 20 years ago,” Valeria said. “I came for Allison’s wedding, but you know, when you have a real connection, you can’t see how much time goes by.” 

Earl even stood as best man in Valeria’s wedding in Buenos Aires. 

Georgann and Earl are both retired teachers, and became aware of the Youth for Understanding program while teaching. They were encouraged to take part in the program because of their connections at the school. As teachers, they would be able to better help acclimate the exchange students to both the local schools and the community.  

Youth for Understanding (YFU) is an international educational exchange organization. A network of over 50 independent national organizations worldwide, YFU representatives work together to advance learning across cultures. Each year, YFU exchanges approximately 4,500 students worldwide.

In addition to Valeria, Georgann and Earl have hosted several other exchange students through Youth for Understanding. They hosted their first student around 1979, and their last student in the late 1980s. 

“Valeria was not our first student,” Georgann said. “Our first was a boy from Brazil, and then Valeria, and then the sister of the boy from Brazil. The last two students we had were from Japan. We’ve also maintained a really strong connection with the Brazilian family.”

When Valeria received her letter from the program informing her of where she would be staying, she wasn’t exactly sure of where it was. She had been familiar with many of the bigger cities in America, although Gladwin wasn’t one of them. 

“I was very excited to be going to Gladwin, although I did need a map to see where it was,” Valeria said. 

A benefit of the exchange program was that it taught Georgann’s children about the world outside of what they were learning in school. Her two youngest, Allison and Jason, grew up with each of these exchange students and learned about their foreign cultures at home. 

“One of the things I remember my daughter saying really impressed me,” Georgann said. “She said, ‘I learned that different isn’t wrong, different is just different,’ and I thought ‘okay, we did something right.’”

Thirty-seven years after first visiting Gladwin, Valeria returned to catch up and explore the city. During her time in Gladwin, she visited with old Gladwin High School classmates and friends she had made. 

“It feels good to see places that I remember from before,” Valeria said. “I have kept in touch with some friends [from Gladwin] and it was very nice to see them.”

She also stopped at many familiar businesses and took plenty of photos downtown. Georgann took Valeria to see some of the paved trail along the Cedar River, and she was able to cheer on the Flying G’s at Gladwin’s homecoming parade. 

Valeria spent just over a week in Gladwin, with the exception of a day trip to Ann Arbor to visit Allison and her family, a day in Frankenmuth, and a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. She flew into Michigan the night of Oct. 13 and flew out the morning of Oct. 21. Valeria’s recent visit to Gladwin was part of a greater trip across America. 

From Argentina, she flew to California to visit her daughter, then to Michigan. After visiting with the Schuster family, she flew to New York City and met with her daughter once again to spend time enjoying the city. After New York, Valeria will travel to Boston to meet with a friend, and then she will fly to Miami. From Miami, she will fly home. Her entire trip will last a total of five weeks. 

On Valeria’s final night in Michigan, the Schuster family gathered for a farewell dinner. 

“The final meal won’t be the fun dinner we all enjoyed when she first arrived,” Georgann said. “We will cherish the time we’ve had with her here, even last night, we spent time driving around to see how many Halloween lights and decorations we could find. It’s the little things that have really been important to her.”

A reunion party was set up for Valeria on Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Riverwalk Place in Gladwin and many of her friends came to celebrate her return. 

“There was a lot of emotions then, and when I leave, it will be very hard,” Valeria said.

One of Valeria’s friends, Joe Kreusch, met with her and a few others at Piper’s Pub for her last night in town. Her friends were all surprised to see her back after 37 years, and having only spent six months in Gladwin back in 1984.

She has always been a traveler and has visited numerous countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Italy, and Israel, to name a few. 

“I love to travel,” Valeria said. “I come from a very big city, and to come here it was very different. But I made a lot of friends, and they affected me greatly. With technology, I am able to keep in touch still, though visiting in person will always be best. Even though we don’t get to celebrate or see each other often, they will always be in my heart and in my thoughts.” 

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