By Ljupce Stojanov (YES 2012-2013, North Macedonia, hosted by AYA/AIFS in Kansas City, MO)
My name is Ljupce Stojanov from North Macedonia. I was a YES exchange student in 2012-2013 in Kansas City, MO. I am sure every exchange student feels the same way – but my exchange year was by far the most exciting year of my life. I was just a teenager away from home, experiencing the other side of the world for a year. My first impression of Kansas City, not even having been there for 12 hours, was, “Wow, I have only seen this in the movies.” When I saw my host school for the first time, I was in awe and couldn’t move for a few minutes. I couldn’t believe this was going to be my school for the next nine months.
My exchange year gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by the best, most supportive people in the world. During my stay in Kansas City, I started volunteering with the Special Olympics. In a very short time, I fell in love with being involved with this organization. Upon my arrival back to North Macedonia, I began working on projects for persons with disabilities. I couldn’t wait to show everyone at home what I learned during my exchange year, and how awesome it was to give back to your community.
My most notable alumni project was receiving the U.S. Department of State’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) grant and starting my own basketball school for people with disabilities in four cities in North Macedonia. The project lasted 18 months and included more than 100 beneficiaries and 100 volunteers. My AEIF project allowed me to meet amazing people with like-minded views about advocating and creating opportunities for people with disabilities. Through these connections, I started volunteering with Special Olympics in Macedonia.
In early 2019, I applied for a YES Alumni Grant to partner with the Special Olympics in North Macedonia to implement the sports project “Grow Equal,” which benefited athletes ages two to 12, both with and without intellectual disabilities. The project took place in Skopje and consisted of four months of sports practices every Saturday and Sunday with 22 young athletes and 18 volunteers. Our volunteer team introduced the youths to basic sports skills, like running kicking and throwing balls. The practices allowed the athletes with intellectual disabilities to develop motor skills and social/emotional skills. According to the parents, the practices helped the youths to be more confident, perform better at school and at everyday activities, and develop healthy habits. This project was the only the beginning. I hope it will become something bigger and spread to other cities in North Macedonia.
I would like to thank everyone in the YES community who has supported my ideas throughout the years. I would also like to thank the Special Olympics in North Macedonia. This project would not have had such an impact on everyone involved if it wasn’t for the support received from the YES program and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Thank you!