Though it's been about 37 years since Ludo Welffens lived in Brainerd, it was his yearlong experience here as a foreign exchange student that seemed to shape the direction of his life and career as a world civil servant.
Welffens, 56, lives in east Manhattan where he works as a senior officer in the United Nations affairs and external relations team at UNICEF headquarters in New York. But back during the 1963-64 school year, the Belgium native was a foreign exchange student at Washington High School and lived with Bill and Helen Albers, who now live in New Mexico.
He worked on the Brainonian yearbook staff as a photographer, participated in theater productions and even competed at the state speech competition.
It was in Brainerd where he learned intimately about American life and culture.
"It was fantastic," said Welffens. "The whole community welcomed me very warmly. It definitely changed me. I think I became a world citizen, and it is a very big privilege for me to feel like a world citizen."
His stint in Brainerd triggered a lifetime of travel and civil service. He moved back to Belgium from Brainerd and received his undergraduate degree in applied economics, then received his master's degree in social science at the University of Chicago under a Ford Foundation Scholarship.
He met his wife, Christiane, who is from the Ivory Coast in Africa, in Chicago when they were both attending school there. They got married in 1970 and moved to West Africa. They have three grown children. He started working for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, in 1975.
During the past 30 years, Welffens has traveled to many countries throughout the world and has worked in 22 different countries. While he now lives in New York City working for UNICEF, his wife is a gynecologist and professor at a university hospital in Ouagadougou, Bukina Faso, in Africa. They both travel frequently to see each other.
During the Sept. 11 attacks, Welffens was actually in Africa at a U.N. conference. He watched the events unfolding in his neighborhood on a small television set in the hotel.
"It was very eerie and a very weird thing to watch in a hotel in West Africa the events of Sept. 11," said Welffens, who lives about two miles from the World Trade Center. "I did not believe it."
If there is any good to come out of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Welffens, it is the hope that the United States will become more involved in backing the U.N., and working to fulfill children's basic human rights on a global scale.
For example, the best investment in helping the people of Afghanistan and other impoverished countries is to educate the girls, he said.
"A girl's education is the best investment. It is well documented that a girl who is educated will marry at a later age, have fewer children and will be a better mother," he explained.
Welffens said he hopes the younger generations now growing up in Brainerd will use the events of Sept. 11 to reach out to children just like themselves in other parts of the world, advocating tolerance and non-violence.
"Life has to go on and I think it goes on with a renewed commitment for all of us who believe it is time to build a just world," he said.
Welffens returned to Brainerd in 1969 while a graduate student in Chicago, but keeps in touch with his "American family," the Albers family, in New Mexico.
He hopes to return to Brainerd in 2004 for his 40th class reunion.
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