The Elizabeth J. Upton Foundation honors the memory of an intrepid young Columbia woman by helping other high school students experience the world.
“I used to think that the sky only stretched on for as far as I could see, and then where my vision became blurred, the world ceased to exist … And I used to think that home only had one name. But that was before. Before I packed my faith in a suitcase, and my fear in a carry-on, and boarded a plane with no known destination,” wrote 17-year-old Elizabeth Upton as she neared the end of a 10-month study-abroad stay in France in June 2014.
Elizabeth spent her junior year of high school in the Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) instead of Rock Bridge High School. After completing her classes at Rock Bridge in December 2014 and beginning her college education at MU in spring 2015, Elizabeth died tragically in a car accident in Columbia. The experience she had with RYE was a life-changing event in a life cut far too short.
People wanted to make donations in Elizabeth’s memory, so the family asked that they do so to RYE. By 2016, her parents, Gary and Marilyn Upton, established the Elizabeth J. Upton Foundation to remove financial barriers for students who shared their daughter’s passion for traveling.
“We knew what a great experience it was for Elizabeth, so we thought this was the best way to honor her, to try to help other students go abroad,” says Marilyn.
Despite a gap in the program due to the global pandemic, the Foundation has awarded $20,000 to date to students from Rotary International District 6080, which includes 52 Rotary Clubs in central and southwest Missouri, including those in Columbia.
Your Life in a Year
“We tell students that it is not a year of your life, it’s your life in a year,” says Kit Freudenberg, the youth exchange officer and RYE committee chair for District 6080. “It’s a challenge. It’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done.”
RYE District 6080 is always looking for students who want to apply, especially from Columbia where only two students are preparing to go abroad this year. They’re also always looking for host families in Columbia willing to take in students from other countries. Students and families can start by talking to their local Rotary Club or by visiting the RYE District 6080 website.
Parents are involved throughout their student’s interview and orientation processes. And host families are fully vetted, undergoing interviews, home visits, background checks, and orientation. Students stay with three different host families during their visit to provide them a wider variety of experiences.
“Every experience is different. Every student brings back something just a little bit different, and embraces something different,” Kit says.
Making the Possibilities Possible
There are other student youth exchange programs other than RYE, but Kit says the two things that set RYE apart are the program’s affordability and security.
RYE embodies what it means to be an exchange program. If a Rotary Club here selects a student to study in a non-English-speaking country, the club sets up a student from another country to stay here. The hosting club provides a monthly stipend for the student, and the host family provides room and board. Students selected for the exchange pay the district organization $1,650, which covers orientation for the students and their parents, and training and ambassador materials. Students are also financially responsible for the costs of their visas, passports, airfare, insurance, and personal expenses, so the funded share may range from $5,000 to $7,000.
Marilyn says that everyone, from the student, the host club, and the host family has a “little piece” of the funding. And although students often spend time fundraising or working to earn money for their share, it isn’t always enough. Families with limited financial means may not have the extra money for their children to go, and that’s where the foundation comes in. Once a student has been accepted for RYE, the Foundation reaches out to students who may need help raising their share.
Beni Adelstein, now a student at MU, says she would have found a way to spend her senior year of high school in Spain in 2018-19 instead of at Rock Bridge. But the support she received from the Upton Foundation made a huge difference.
“I was willing to work to try and raise enough money to afford study abroad. But with the help of the foundation, I was able to work less and remain focused on my studies in school,” Beni says. “For this, I am eternally grateful as my work in high school paid off, helping me to get merit-based scholarships to cover costs of university. The support of the foundation allowed me to prepare for and fully immerse myself in the exchange process without the stress of the financial burdens that I would’ve had to dedicate more of my attention to without the Upton scholarship.”
A Life-Changing Experience
Beni, now a ROTEX who helps RYE prepare students before they leave to study abroad, says “It is the most transformative experience I have had in my life, and I think every student should get the opportunity to take part in an exchange.”
In Beni’s essay about her RYE experience, she wrote that, “I never realized how much this would change how I define myself. In learning to communicate, abandon my fears, and be more expressive, I’ve become more self-confident and satisfied with my life than I’ve ever been before. I’m no longer afraid of the unknown and I’ll continue to seek more experiences like this where I can see our beautiful world in a new light.”
“The foundation really helps a lot for families that could never even imagine their child having this experience if it wasn’t for that,” Kit says. “The support that the Upton Foundation gives has really made a difference in students actually making applications, knowing that there is some financial assistance.”
Marilyn hopes Elizabeth’s foundation can continue raising money through donations and the annual crepe-making fundraising event that will hopefully resume later this spring. That way, the foundation can continue helping students realize the same dream her daughter did in her short life. She knows Elizabeth would have wanted donations made in her memory to help other students, like Beni, daring to expand their own horizons and being forever changed by the experience.
As Elizabeth wrote in her essay:
“Home is where the heart is. And for me, everywhere I go, I fall in love. One day, 70 years from now, I want to go with no piece of my heart left with me. Because for every place I went, I left a little of it there. Scattered around the world, my heart will continue to beat. One time for every star in plain sight, and twice for every star hidden in the never-ending night sky.”
Elizabeth J. Upton Foundation
501(c)3 Charity Benefitting Rotary Youth Exchange
The Elizabeth J. Upton Foundation was established to promote the program and assist both inbound and outbound students of Rotary District 6080.
Board of Directors:
Marilyn Upton, president
Gary Upton, vice president
Susan Reynolds, treasurer
Shelley Williams, secretary
About Rotary Youth Exchange
The RYE program provides an opportunity for outstanding students from all walks of life to study abroad for an academic year, with the local Rotary Club underwriting most of the costs. The selected students are responsible for their airline tickets, visas, and a administrative fee to Rotary. Once the student is abroad, they receive a monthly allowance from the hosting rotary and all room and board is taken care of by the hosting family.
Elizabeth J. Upton Foundation, Inc.
1704 Brookfield Manor
Rotary Youth Exchange District 6080