HANFORD – Kazakhstani student Anel Yeralina has been in Hanford for less than a year, but she’s already managed to make a difference.

The 17-year-old Hanford West foreign exchange student has been active in her adopted community since arriving in August as part of the Future Leaders Exchange program. FLEX is a program that enables students from former Soviet Union and Eastern European nations to study in America.

“When I tell people where I’m from, they ask ‘Where’s that,’“ Yeralina said.

The junior, who has been speaking English since fifth grade, has been visiting local schools to educate students about her home country.  Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan borders Russia to the north and China to the east.

As a child, Yeralina’s life goal was to travel around in a van, helping and caring for sick and neglected pets.

While the particulars of her girlhood dream have changed, Yeralina is still helping animals in need, or as she referred to them -- “our little brothers.”

As part of Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), the Hanford West student collected from local donors more than 200 pounds of dog and cat food, 12 leashes, 233 puppy pee pads, two dozen dog toys and dozens of other animal accessories on behalf of the Kings SPCA Halfway Home.

The GYSD is an event that encourages young people to improve their communities through service. It is celebrated each year in 135 countries.

“With this project, I wanted to benefit those dogs and cats and animals that do need help,” she said, adding that she was especially glad that she found towels and blankets for animals so that they could sleep more comfortably.

Yeralina printed hundreds of fliers expressing an need to collect items for the SPCA with her contact information which resulted in collecting hundreds of helpful items from donors.

Yeralina and her local host, Mark Sherman, dropped the goods off at the SPCA, 9071 16 1/2 Ave., Lemoore, on Saturday. The animal lover took time to meet and pet some of the dogs staying at the halfway home while the animals’ search for a permanent family continues.

“It was sad to look at them. They were so happy to see someone but at the same time, the conditions they’re in are not as good as you would want them to be,” she said. “But with the donations, I think they’ll do better.”

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Since arriving in California, Yeralina estimates that she’s engaged in nearly 140 volunteer hours. She said that opportunities to volunteer aren’t readily available in Kazakhstan, while here in Hanford organizations let themselves be known when they need a helping hand.

She said her favorite place to volunteer was The Remington’s senior living and retirement community, where she helped organize bingo and baseball games. She also took the time to have conversations and make friends.

“The elderly people who are there are very nice and they’re happy to talk to someone, especially someone who is not from this area. They’re very interested about my country,” she said. “It’s nice to be around them, because you can see the happiness in their eyes.”

Yeralina said that that aura of happiness and friendliness extends to all members of the Hanford community. She was surprised by the friendliness of the Hanford community. Greeting a neighbor with a “good morning” isn’t as common in her country as it is here in Hanford, she said.

While in California, Yeralina and her host family have visited dozens of the state’s most notable points including Monterey, the Hearst Castle, Sequoia National Park, the Santa Monica Pier and they have visits to Disneyland and Death Valley planned before she returns home next month.

She said the strangest thing about Americans is our knack for wearing socks with sandals. Though, strange as it may be to her, she’s picked up the habit nonetheless.

The visit hasn’t been beneficial only to Yeralina, though, Sherman said. The student has made her host family traditional Kazakhstani meals during her visit and has invited the Shermans to visit her in her home country in the future.

The Shermans have hosted three other exchange students prior to inviting Yeralina into their home, all of whom they stay in contact with.  Sherman’s own daughter, Leah, spent a year in Bosnia through a foreign exchange program after seeing the benefits of the program.

Sherman encourages other local families to participate in the foreign exchange programs.  

“Kids come over here and they get introduced to all of the stuff we have available and it’s nice to have them cook us dishes that are popular in their country. It’s a really neat symbiotic relationship,” Sherman said.

“It’s an exchange both ways,” Yeralina agreed.

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