There they were, a dozen unchaperoned Portuguese-speaking kids in a chain restaurant in Chicago imagining all the horrors that could befall foreigners who can’t pay. When the waitress came back, the kids told her that they couldn’t cover the check. She looked at them, gave a nod, and went away. They didn’t know what to expect.
A few minutes later, she came back. “Don’t worry about the check,” she told them with a warm smile.
“Will you have to make up the difference?” they asked, worried.
“Oh, no,” she said, her smile broadening. “When I told the manager about your problem, he picked up the whole bill and gave me a message for you: ‘I’m glad you came to our restaurant and hope you enjoyed the meal. I’m glad you’re in our city and hope you enjoy your stay in America.’”
They were stunned. They never expected such kindness.
When the girl ended her story, the others remained silent. It had been a powerful experience for all of them. We had introduced them to congressmen, Cabinet secretaries, and other dignitaries, but a restaurant manager in Chicago made the strongest impression on them and gave them their most enduring memory of America.
Another young lady raised her hand. “We were boarding the plane to leave Chicago,” she said. “After I sat down, a woman got in the seat next to me. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. I was confused. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I brushed against you when I took my seat. I hope I didn’t disturb you.’
“I’ll never forget that,” she said.
A simple courtesy that most of us would have forgotten before the beverage cart rolled down the aisle left an indelible impression on a young Brazilian girl. It’s hard to say why. Maybe she didn’t expect such obvious niceness here, or maybe she wasn’t used to that kind of gesture in Brazil. Whatever the reason, the moment has stayed with her.
When they returned home, the YA alumni appeared on Brazilian media and became multipliers of goodwill, especially to young people. There are now alumni in every Brazilian state.
None of the Young Ambassadors have so far become corporate big shots or their country’s president. But a few, like a student named Casio, stand out.
When Casio returned to his small town, he decided to share his experience. “I realized the secret of my success was my mastery of English,” he told Danilovich, our ambassador. So Casio started his own language school called Backpack.
“Branding is important,” Casio said. “You have to have a name they will remember.” He marketed his school on his own website and then went to the mayor of his town. “I’m going to start a language school that will help our town’s young people,” he told the mayor. “You should give me books for them.” The mayor gave him books.
When Ambassador Danilovich heard this story, he realized that the embassy could help too. And the embassy also gave Casio books.
Later, YA alumni who got into the University of Brasília began an entry-exam preparation program run by Casio to help economically disadvantaged students prep for the rigorous entry exam. The program charged ten reals, or about four dollars, for a semester of classes. “You cannot give it to them for free,” Casio explained. “They won’t appreciate it if it’s free.” Casio will have a brilliant future in marketing.
The YA success is a State Department success (it breeds lots of goodwill), but it’s much more than that. It’s an American people success. Our own people are our best ambassadors and promoters.
You never can tell what kids are really seeing (much less control it), but they are always seeing and always judging. If we can provide them with rich enough experiences, they’ll take away something good that they can use to make their own and other peoples’ lives better.
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