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Bemidjians headed to Finland on Rotary study exchange

Tara Hokuf and Chuck Hildebrandt, both of Bemidji, leave Saturday for a five-week trip to Finland as part of a group study exchange sponsored by Rotary District 5580. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Chuck Hildebrandt and Tara Hokuf didn’t know each other at this time last year.

They also didn’t know Melissa “Missy” Lindow of Nevis or Kathryn Lyzun of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

But that was before the four young professionals were selected to spend a month in Finland, further developing leadership and diplomacy skills and learning more about their chosen professions.

“These are going to be lifelong relationships,” Hokuf said of her team members. “We’re all like family already.”

Hokuf, 28, and Hildebrandt, 38, both of Bemidji, have been chosen for spots on Team Finland, this year’s group study exchange (GSE) team through Rotary District 5580.

Their destination is Finland, where they will spend five weeks experiencing the customs, vocations, and lifestyles of the Finnish people while also sharing about their home countries.

“The whole experience is going to be life-changing,” Hokuf said.

Hokuf, a foster care case manager with North Homes Children & Family Services, and Hildebrandt, an account executive with Paul Bunyan Communications, both applied for the opportunity last fall.

“I wanted to be part of something bigger than me,” Hildebrandt said.

‘Such an experience’

The team will spend most of trip with one another and their Rotarian team leader, Steve Hansen of Pine River.

Together, the five will visit cities throughout Finland, learning about and seeing firsthand different aspects of the country’s operation, such as its government, law enforcement and health care system. Individually, team members will spend one day per week learning about their chosen vocations.

Hildebrandt said Finland is very technologically advanced, noting that its government has set a goal of offering 50-megabyte Internet service to all of its residents by 2015.

He suggested he will perhaps observe something being done or used in Finland that could be implemented locally to improve service for Paul Bunyan Communications members or to improve the local community.

He said Bemidji Rotarian Gary Johnson, who as CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications encouraged Hildebrandt to apply for Team Finland, developed the initial idea for the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival during a GSE trip to Sweden.

“My goal is to glean something from them (the Finns) and bring it back here,” Hildebrand said.

Hokuf, who will make a presentation to her North Home colleagues upon her return, has similar goals.

“Just being able to be submerged in that (culture) is going to be such an experience,” she said.

Also, Hokuf said, their hosts, Rotary District 1400, are customizing the trip to meet their interests.

For example, after learning Hokuf is 50 percent Finnish – her father is fully Finnish – Rotarians used her maiden name to track down some of her distant relatives, who she will meet while she’s in country.

“I got goose bumps,” said Hokuf, who is spending an extra week in Finland after the GSE trip concludes to meet up with her parents, of Hibbing, who planned an overlapping trip. “Rotarians just go out of their way to be the best hosts they can be.”

‘they’re investing in you’

Neither Hokuf nor Hildebrand knew too much about Rotary before last fall. Now, they both hope to officially join the organization they’ve learned so much about.

“They’re investing in you, the community, the world,” Hildebrandt said. “My hope is that I would be able to (join) … this is an avenue where I think I could make a difference.”

GSEs are offered by individual Rotary districts. District 5580, an international district covering parts of Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota and all of North Dakota, last year sponsored a trip to Tasmania.

Each of the district’s 65 Rotary clubs can sponsor one non-Rotarian applicant for a GSE. Hokuf and Hildebrandt first interviewed with representatives of the two Bemidji clubs and were each chosen to each be sponsored: Hildebrandt by the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club and Hokuf by the Bemidji Rotary Club.

Once named among eight finalists, Hildebrandt and Hokuf traveled to Duluth to interview before a dozen district Rotarians. Hildebrandt said he answered six questions during his timeslot; Hokuf said she got through 13 or 14 questions.

“It was fun,” Hildebrandt said. “I like interviewing and I like meeting new people, so I enjoyed it.”

A few hours later, they each got “the call” saying they were selected as team members.

“I’ve never wanted anything as bad as I’ve wanted this in my whole life,” Hokuf said. “Each step in the process, my interest and wanting it increased exponentially.”