Gabi with host families

Host families and friends attended a party for Gabi Maffei during a visit earlier this month. Pictured (left to right) are host families Charlie and Karen Luchtefeld; Dan and Madonna Patton; Gabi; host family Ken and Tanja Larimore; and Jack and Darlene Poff.

By Steve Raymond

News Report Staff

Gabriella Maffei had never flown on a plane before.

She had never seen snow, been hunting, eaten a chocolate Buckeye, put milk on cereal, walked from class to class or been hit in the face with a softball either.

But after a year as a foreign exchange student in Effingham, Gabi had a whole new list of experiences to add to her memory bank.

And she’s had to rely on that memory through the years.

Gabi was part of the Rotary International Exchange Program for the 2004-2005 school year at Effingham High School.

But earlier this month – October 7-12 — this talkative, personality-filled Brazilian was back in Effingham after a 12-year absence. She had the opportunity to relive those memories, plus so many more, and visit with her four host families – Dan and Madonna Patton, Charlie and Karen Luchtefeld, Ken and Tanja Larimore and Jim and Rosie Gibbons.

Gabi was actually on her way to a wedding in Italy. After she found out it was less expensive to fly from Brazil to New York City to Chicago to Italy than it was to fly directly to Italy, she decided to pay a visit to the town she called home and the people she called family for a full year.

“I wanted to be an exchange student, but in Brazil, it was very expensive,” Gabi said during her visit and following a Noon Rotary meeting earlier this month. “But when I found out about the Rotary program, it became possible. I was so excited when I found out I had been accepted.”

And she made quite an impression, especially on the four families she lived with.

“She fit right into our family. People thought she was our daughter,” Karen Luchefeld recalled. “She was so pleasant and easy to be around. She was a lot of fun and willing to do anything.”

“She was the perfect one for us to have as our first exchange student,” Karen added, noting she and Charlie hosted another exchange student a few years later.

Karen even had a chance to visit Gabi and her family in Brazil in 2006. She traveled with a Rotary group out of Champaign.

“We kept three different exchange students, but Gabi, by far, was the most outgoing, most dynamic,” Rosie Gibbons said. “She was very positive and knew what she wanted from Day One. We thoroughly enjoyed having her here.”

“She was wonderful,” Ken Larimore added. “She was bright and vivacious. She was a sweetheart and became a big part of our family.”

Tanja also visited Gabi in Brazil. Ken and Tanja’s son, Ryan, was an exchange student in Brazil two years after Gabi was in Effingham. So Tanja had the opportunity to see Ryan and also meet and stay with Gabi’s parents.

The Larimore’s have hosted two more exchange students in addition to Gabi.

“We were so thankful to have such a cool, cool young lady stay with us,” Madonna Patton acknowledged. “We still consider her a part of our family. We still have her picture on our refrigerator.”

Gabi is from Sao Carlos, Brazil. It has a population of approximately 200,000, but she refers to it as a “small town.”

Her father, Alfredo, works for a finance company, while her mother, Maria, is a stay-at-home-mom. Gabi has two brothers, Alfredo II and Caio; and one sister, Giovanna.

Gabi earned her college degree in international relations and economics from Facamp University in Campinas, Brazil. Now 30 years old, she works in the human relations department as a project coordinator for an electric company that employs approximately 13,000.

When talking with her, it didn’t take long to realize how much Effingham and her host families still mean to her.

“That year for me was life-changing,” Gabi emphasized. “I couldn’t be more grateful for my host families, Rotary and the Effingham community. It was a great year for me.”

And it took no time at all for Gabi to be thrust right into her new experience.

In fact, after the Luchtefelds’ and Gibbons’ picked her up at the airport in St. Louis, she was taken directly to Effingham High School to register for classes. School had actually already started.

But before she ever registered, Gabi had a specific goal in mind.

“She wanted to graduate from Effingham High School,” Rosie recalled. “She had brought her list of classes from Brazil and wanted to know which classes she would have to take here to get her diploma.”

And when the EHS Class of 2005 walked across the stage, the 18-year-old Gabi was part of that group.

The Patton’s even threw a graduation party for her, along with their son Nick, who was part of the same class.

But that was just one of several moments Gabi talked about during the interview.

The first one was about snow.

“In Brazil, when we watch American movies right before Christmas, there’s always snow on the ground,” she said. “I was looking forward to seeing snow for the first time. But when I came here, there wasn’t any snow and I was very disappointed.”

That year, it didn’t snow until Christmas morning.

And when Gabi woke up and saw snow on the ground, she immediately put on a pair of Madonna’s boots and ran outdoors in her pajamas and a t-shirt.

“She tried to catch snow in her mouth,” Madonna remembered.

“I called the weatherman and asked for snow,” Dan joked.

Later on, Nick took her sled riding.

“It was wonderful,” Gabi admitted. “There’s no sledding in Sao Carlos.”

She also told Nick she wanted to go hunting with him. But after having to get up at 4:30 in the morning, being told not to move or talk, hunting was a one-time experience for Gabi.

In addition, Gabi decided to try sports during her year at EHS. She went out for soccer in the fall and softball in the spring.

“I had played soccer in high school, but I was terrible,” Gabi noted. “It was coed here and there were three other girls on the team. I was so bad, I was on the bench.”

Softball turned out to be a learning experience and a painful one at that.

“I had never seen softball, but thought I’d give it a try,” she added. “I couldn’t catch the ball, so my leg was always bruised.”

But that was nothing compared to batting.

“I got hit right in the face,” Gabi recalled. “My entire face was bruised. I told the coach I was fine, but I just kept crying.”

Since Dan was a national accounts manager with Kellogg’s, there was always plenty of cereal in the Patton home. But when Gabi saw him putting milk on his Frosted Flakes, she just started laughing.

“Why do you do that?” she asked. “I told him we put yogurt on our cereal.”

Madonna tried it with yogurt and liked it. She still puts yogurt on her cereal now 12 years later.

Gabi describes Madonna as a “good cooker” and remembered how much she liked how Madonna made stroganoff and those chocolate Buckeyes.

She and Dan — or Danno, as she likes to call him — had an interesting talk when she turned 18. In Brazil, 18 year olds can drink.

“So Danno?” she asked.

But Danno quickly replied, “No-oh.”

As can be expected, there were adjustments for Gabi at EHS. In Brazil, students stay in the same room and teachers move from room to room. It’s just the opposite here.

“I wasn’t used to changing rooms and I had never used a locker before,” Gabi explained. “At the beginning, it was hard to adjust. But then I made friends with other exchange students and other Effingham kids as well. Everyone was very nice.”

Each of the four families got involved in the program through Rotary, some through the encouragement of Jack Poff, who was the coordinator of the Rotary Exchange Program at that time. And each quickly say it was a great experience and encourage other families to consider it.

Gabi lived three months with each of the families – first with the Luchtefelds, then the Pattons, Larimores and Gibbons.

“Our family learned so much from Gabi,” Dan admitted. “I encourage everyone to do this. We are so glad we did.”

While she said it was a good experience to live with different families, saying goodbye was always difficult.

“I cried every time I moved,” she noted.

“It was hard for the families, too,” Dan added.

All four families went to the airport when Gabi flew back home. And on her recent return visit, approximately 30 people came to Dan and Madonna’s to welcome her back. Gabi has stayed in touch with the host families, plus other friends she made during her year in Effingham.

“It’s amazing. It’s like I was just here yesterday,” she said. “But when you truly love people, there’s no barrier. I got to know and love these people deeply. They’re family.”