When Ginny Simmons relocated to Leland eight months ago, she brought a little piece of Russia with her. As one of the leading directors of the Russia and West Virginia Exchange Foundation, Simmons has been facilitating reciprocal Russian and American
exchange visits for over twenty-five years. This summer, Simmons has succeeded in expanding the program into the Wilmington area, as a group of eleven Russian citizens are currently visiting the Port City this month.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lee Ann Bolton
The Russia and West Virginia Exchange Program started in early 1990’s. At the time, Simmons was working for the State Department of Education in Charleston, West Virginia as the coordinator of gifted education. When a group of 40 visiting teachers associated with the Russian space program came to Parkersburg, West Virginia in the spring of 1992, Simmons was asked to speak to them about gifted education.
“Under communism, they had not been allowed to have such a thing and were very interested in it. As I spoke to them through a translator about gifted education, I thought maybe they would like to come see our Governor’s Schools,” remembers Simmons.
West Virginia’s Governor’s Schools are residential summer sessions designed for academically and artistically talented students from across the state. As soon as Simmons returned to Charleston, she contacted the governor and requested permission to invite one educator and two students from Russia to attend a session that very summer. Her request was granted, and as that first small group of Russian visitors came to West Virginia, the ball began to roll and doors began to open. By December of that same year, a delegation of 25 American librarians, educators, lawyers, doctors, and various other professionals all traveled together to Russia.
“We were all victims of the Cold War and its propaganda. So when we got there and we met these wonderful, warm, intelligent, caring people, we would just sit in the hotel at night and discuss how we didn’t think it was going to be anything like this. We had no idea about the art of Russia, the beautiful churches, the beauty of the country. We decided that we didn’t want our future generations to be influenced by false propaganda as we had been. What happens between two governments has nothing to do with everyday people,” says Simmons.
Simmons and the rest of the delegation returned home and immediately decided to create a non-profit exchange foundation accessible to the people of both countries. Led by a group of volunteer directors, Russia and West Virginia: A Partnership for Exchange Foundation was born.
“We promote exchanges in business, education, culture, and community. We’ve spread way beyond West Virginia now, and we’ve promoted over 400 exchanges with over 5000 people, both backward and forwards at this point.”
In 1999 Simmons moved to the Myrtle Beach area and continued her work as a director by promoting exchanges there. Since then, the foundation continues to grow beyond West Virginia, with currently twelve directors living and organizing exchanges across five different states.
“We have so many wonderful stories we could tell. We’ve had international marriages, international children have been born, and so many great relationships have been formed. I’ve been to Russia 78 times now and have made so many wonderful friends who are like family to me!” reflects Simmons.
In Russia, knowledge of the program spreads by word of mouth. The students range in age from 13 to 17 years old, and the adults include parents, teachers, contractors, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and other professionals all wanting to learn the western way of doing business. The groups from Russia all travel together and come to the United States for one month each summer. Participants are responsible for their own travel expenses, while the foundation finds them housing makes connections for the adults to work with once they arrive. For the students, the foundation helps to organize English classes for them while here.
When Simmons moved from South Carolina to Leland this past December, she realized that Wilmington was a perfect location to continue promoting international exchanges. She quickly got to work recruiting host families in the area, and on June 27th, eleven Russians arrived in the Port City. The group consists of eight students, an interior designer, a music teacher, and the world-renowned Russian painter Konstantin Miroshnik.
The group consists of eight students, an interior designer, a music teacher, and the world-renowned Russian painter Konstantin Miroshnik, whose daughter is also one of the students. Staying with a family in Brunswick Forest, Miroshnik is spending much of his time collaborating with the Leland Arts Center, as well as making appearances at different art organizations in and around Wilmington.
“The arts community here has been wonderful. The Leland Cultural Arts Center responded immediately with an interest in our artist when they realized the quality of his work. They helped us spread the word and set up an extensive program where he is giving lessons, going to the Thalian Community Arts Center to paint side by side with other artists, and making various other appearances.”
The eight students are spending their time engrossed in UNCW’s Summer English Academy, a two-week program designed to help international students increase their language skills, and gain an understanding of American culture.
“The people at UNCW have been the best partners I’ve ever hooked up with. They do the English classes and have also been taking the students out, to museums, the Serpentarium, to a ropes course, and other things. They had our group and a group of students from Argentina, which has created another great multicultural gathering experience,” says Simmons.
With the support of UNCW, the arts community, and all the local families who have opened up their homes to this inaugural group of visitors, Simmons feels confident that this summer marks only the start to a growing future of exchange opportunities between
the Leland area and Russia.
“Our area is just right for international exchanges. The families these people are staying with have been so wonderful and caring, and they’ve really reached out to understand this population and their needs. So far I’m just walking on air, I’m so happy!”