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South Jersey Rotary International & Lombardy GSE: The Beauty of Friendship

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Adventure, knowledge, culture, business, peace, service, and friendship are the core components that define a very unique and special journey thousands of young business professionals have taken part in around the world. This cultural and vocational exchange is one of Rotary International’s educational programs aimed to help participants develop new skills to serve their communities while promoting international understanding. The Group Study Exchange (GSE) Program offers selected team members an exciting chance of a lifetime—the opportunity to spend four weeks abroad hosted by hospitable Rotarians immersed in the country’s culture while visiting key businesses in the region.

Over the years, more than 75-thousand people from around the globe have embarked on these exclusive and extraordinary trips. This year, men and women from the United States and Italy participated in the four week exchange which included an extensive and rigorous itinerary of travel, tours, meetings, presentations and social activities.

(Be sure to click on the extensive photo gallery on your right for more pictures!)

I am extremely honored to have been selected to join the South Jersey team in a recent trip to the Lombardy region of Italy; along with fellow team members, Anna Brudnicka, Nathaniel Young, Maria Pinardo and team leader, Ken Landis. The Lombardy team who traveled to S.J. included Daniele Castelli, Elisabetta Colombo, Giacomo Mainetti, Giulia Centonze and team leader Maria Letizia Baldini.  

In 1965, the Rotary Foundation launched GSE with the goal of helping young adults develop professional skills and leadership qualities. This program is just one of the many ways Rotary gives back to the community and to date, it has sponsored about 16-thousand GSE teams averaging almost 550 exchanges each year. The teams are made up of a Rotarian leader and four non-Rotarians between the ages of 25 and 40 with the exchanges lasting between four and six weeks. The program encompasses the organization’s mission “to enable Rotarians to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education and the alleviation of poverty.”

Currently, there are 1.2 million Rotarians who belong to more than 34-thousand clubs in nearly every country in the world. In Italy, the gracious and welcoming GSE Chair for District 2040 was Gianluca Azario, a member of the Parchi Alto Milanese Rotary Club. He has been involved with the program since 1999 and has worked with 14 exchange groups from around the world.

“The GSE program is unparalleled,” Azario explains. “It’s a very diverse mix of experiences. It really is like a job because in a short amount of time the members must become acclimated to the lifestyle of their hosting country while visiting firms, factories, non-profit organizations and social entities.”

Through the years, Azario has seen firsthand the impact the GSE program has made on the lives of participants and the Rotarians.

“It’s an enlightening journey for everyone,” he said. “We, the hosting Rotarians, give the participants the opportunity to see how we lead our lives personally and professionally; for us, we get to meet dynamic young individuals interested in our culture who will become the next generation of visionaries and together we all have the chance to sow peace experiences.”

The exchange began in April, when the S.J. Rotary clubs hosted the Lombardy team and showed them the sights and sounds in the Garden State. They toured the area, visited local businesses, wineries, wind farms, casinos, the Motorsports Park, and historical landmarks. During their month-long stay in District 7640, the Italian team also visited Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City.

The S.J. team welcomed the Lombardy team on their first day in New Jersey, presenting a rare opportunity for each team to meet in-person. Since then, both teams have continued to share a special connection that has spanned thousands of miles and continued when the Lombardy team hosted the S.J team.

Adventures in Italy

On May 11th, the S.J. team arrived in District 2040, the Lombardy region located in northern Italy for our month-long trip. We visited Legnano, an Italian town and commune crossed by the river Olona. Legnano is the only town in addition to Rome named in the Italian national anthem because of the historic Battle of Legnano. In 1176, the Lombard League fought against the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and won. Each year, Legnanesi remember the Battle of Legnano with a special event, the Palio delle contrade. Hundreds of people dressed in medieval costumes for the historic parade that processed through the streets with animals including horses, goats, birds and cows. I was invited into the press box of the stadium to cover the main event of the Palio, a bareback horse race comprised of the eight districts, similar to the Siena Palio.

While in Legnano, we saw a fantastic fireworks show at Castello di Legnano; visited LIUC University and learned about their international student Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sassoexchange program; watched an excellent presentation by the students at the Lieco Scientific/Classico Statale; enjoyed a step-by-step tour of how men’s shoes are made at Fratelli Rossetti’s factory; tasted coffee made with one of Giorgio Rancilio’s coffee machines at the Rancilio factory; met senior citizens at il Melo Health and Social Cooperative; and got a first-hand look at the AMGA Legnano municipal services company.

Our Rotarian hosts, Paola Taborelli and Laura Barbera also took us to beautiful Lake Como, where we climbed to the top of Faro Voltiano di San Maurizio and to Lake Maggiore where we toured Rocca di Angera, Angera e Lago Maggiore, and Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso.

Next, we traveled to Livigno, a town and commune in the province of Sondrio located in the Italian Alps. We toured the valley of Livigno, a tourist destination boasting long slopes, pristine nature and over 250 shops with Rotarian Fabio Giacomelli. We also visited the local TV station teleMonteneve, met the director, Gloria Massera and taped a video segment about the GSE program.

In Bormio, we indulged in some rest and relaxation at the Bagni Vecchi Spa. Rich in history, the spa and wellness centre is famous for their Roman baths from the 1st century B.C., along with the Medieval baths, Imperial baths, the Saint Martin Grotto that leads to one of the springs in the heart of the mountain and an open air pool where visitors have panoramic views of the valley of Bormio and the surrounding Western Dolomite mountains. Bagni Vecchi Spa

We toured the center of Sondrio, a town and commune located in the heart of Valtellina and met with Isabella Pelizzatti who along with her two brothers are fifth generation winemakers and growers at Arpepe, their family’s winery.

Continuing on we stopped in Lecco, a city that lies at the end of the south-eastern branch of Lake Como. We visited many industrial companies in the area including a chocolate production company, ICAM S.p.a.; and saw how OMET constructs printing presses with Antonio Bartesaghi.

Bergamo is a city and commune located in Lombardy at the foothills of the Bergamo Alps, a mountain range in the Italian Alps. During our stay, Rotarian Nicoletta Silvestri, arranged for us to tour the chemical group, SIAD; and Tenaris, a leading supplier of tubes and related services. We also visited Mecatronics and Dynamic Devices; along with Italcementi’s new research and innovation center, i.lab located in the Kilometro Rosso Science & Technology Park.

Rotarian Enrico Cavallini took us to see the Iron Crown of Lombardy; Villa Reale; a factory and showroom of the well known furniture brand Giorgetti; and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza for a parade of Porsche 911’s to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the model.

We enjoyed a ferryboat ride on the northern arm of Lake Como thanks to Rotarian Vittorio Polti and made stops in Colico, Bellagio, and Varenna. Our itinerary also led us to Forte Montecchio Nord in Colico, one of the best preserved fortresses of the Great War in Europe.

In Milan, the second largest city in Italy and the capital of Lombardy, the S.J. team had a busy schedule organized by Baldini, a Rotarian and the GSE Italian team leader. We visited the Milan Cathedral; Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” mural painting; the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church; Castello Sforzesco; Museo Teatrale alla Scala; the world’s oldest shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; the Polytechnic University of Milan; and the Navigli district.

In an effort to connect business professionals, GSE arranged vocational visits for me with journalists at several news organizations. I met with Paolo Zucca from Il Sole 24 Ore; Franco Tagliaferri, Claudia Pensotti and Maurizio Toma, from CNBC Class Television; David Giudici from Gente Motori; Marcello Villani and Vittorio Colombo with La Provincia; Sergio Villa from Bergamo TV and Radio Alta; Marco Taje and Alessandro Marchesin from Legnano News; Rosella del Castello of Bergamo News; and Giovanni Chiodini and Ivan Albarelli with Il Giorno. 

In a day trip we visited Piazza San Marco, the principal public square of Venice and took a picturesque gondola ride through the famous Venice canals. With my kind and generous Bergamo hosts Paolo Sanguettola, his wife Silvia Bernini and their daughter, Frederica we attended the 50th anniversary mass commemorating the death of Pope Blessed John XXIII at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Pope Francis met with some of the attendees and spoke to the congregation about Pope John XXIII’s legacy.

Through Rotary International, the GSE participants from both countries met business colleagues while experiencing the culture and lifestyle of the region. According to Azario, they could become future Rotarians as they now belong to an extended network of people who share a common bond.

“Rotary’s GSE creates opportunities and relationships that can last for a lifetime,” he explained. “This program is very enriching and I think it leaves a positive mark on your life that you will never forget.”

While the GSE members enjoyed an educational and enlightening trip it was the Rotarian’s time, energy, generosity, kindness, and ultimately the beauty of friendship that will be remembered forever.

Veronica Dudo is an award-winning journalist covering everything from breaking news to red carpet celebrity interviews. Follow her on Twitter @VeronicaDudo and Facebook 

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