“Sailing is a way of life, not just a sport. It prepares you for life,” according to Maria ‘Ines’ Ofelia Balestrini, a young Argentine sailing coach who, for the last three summers, has helped young Americans prepare for life by teaching them to sail at the Miles River Yacht Club summer camp in St. Michael’s, Maryland.
Ines comes to St. Michael’s as part of the Department of State’s Camp Counselor exchange program. Camp Counselor is one of 13 program categories of the State Department’s BridgeUSA program, which brings international students, scholars, and future leaders to the U.S. for exchange experiences.
Ines says that she grew up sailing, with lessons from her father and grandmother off the coast of Argentina from age 9. She says, “I love to pass my passion on to others, just like my father and grandmother did for me.”
A former member of the Argentine national sailing team and an attorney, she says she is drawn back to St. Michael’s each year by her relationships with her young sailors, who learn not just sailing techniques but also responsibility and teamwork. In her three years at the St. Michael’s camp, she feels she has made a change in the club culture around youth programming and that “touches my heart.”
While in St. Michael’s, she lives with an American host family and is provided with a bike and sometimes a car to navigate the town. “I’m so grateful to my hosts,” she says.
This year, Ines was selected as one of 39 BridgeUSA participants, drawn from the Camp Counselor, Au Pair, and Summer Work Travel program categories, to participate in a leadership development seminar sponsored by the State Department and conducted at American University in Washington, D.C. The program provided a unique opportunity for young leaders from around the globe to enhance their skills in intercultural communication, community building, and media literacy.
The seminar participants, chosen through a very competitive selection process, will be well equipped to convey what they’ve learned in their U.S. exchange experience to their families, friends, and colleagues at home, and to deepen the mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations, which is the goal of the BridgeUSA program.
“There were so many smart and ambitious international young people selected to take part in the program. One man spoke seven languages. We learned a lot about ways to build connections across cultures,” she says. It’s likely that Ines had a lot to contribute to those discussions.
When Ines returns to Argentina, she will resume her position as head coach for “Club Universitario Buenos Aires”, managing its youth sailing program that runs the whole year and involves almost 200 young sailors, ages 6 to 21, and leading a staff of 20 sailing coaches. She will also continue her work on the professional coaching staff of the Argentinean Optimist Association.
The purpose of the BridgeUSA program is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange. As Ines’ experience suggests, that understanding can be deeply enriching and can be fostered in a seminar, in a boat on the Chesapeake Bay, or around a family dinner table.