“It was an experience we’ll never forget’

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Mark Hetherington from 16th Newtownabbey BB Company, was one of only two young people to be chosen for the council’s student exchange programme.

Mark travelled to the borough’s sister town of Gilbert Arizona in the United States to meet up with his exchange student, Sarah Serrano, and her family for his three week stay.

During his visit Mark travelled to the Grand Canyon, New Mexico and to Disneyland in California.

He said: “The Serrano family welcomed me into their home and very quickly made me feel very much part of their family.

“During my stay I enjoyed many new experiences, visited places that I had only had read about and enjoyed getting to know Sarah, her family and her friends.”

He added: “I also attended my first baseball game, went quad biking and went to some local museums.

“We were at the local Gilbert fourth of July Independence Day celebrations and much much more.

“I enjoyed eating many different foods and during my first week we all celebrated my 17th birthday American style.”

The first half of the exchange programme finished on July 12 and Mark and Sarah both flew back to Northern Ireland.

During Sarah’s stay, Newtownabbey Borough Council arranged a bus tour around the North Coast where they visited the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway.

The Council also arranged a visit to Stormont, an event at Sentry Hill and coasteering - a variation between rock climbing and rock pooling.

Mark’s family also took Sarah on a tour of the Mourne Mountains, Marble Arch Caves, the Fermanagh lakes and more local attractions such as the Titanic Centre, Belfast City Hall, Carrickfergus Castle and the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

Mark and Sarah also took in a whirlwind trip to London for three days, where they enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, and West End theatre show ‘Wicked’ as well as the all-important shopping in Harrods.

On returning home to Newtownabbey Mark and Sarah continued their action-packed adventures with voluntary work at the Donkey Sanctuary near Ballyrobert.

Mark added: “The exchange programme gave me the opportunity to visit places that I may never have been able to visit, and to meet people and make new friends.

“It gave me the chance to see and experience another country and other cultures, all of which has helped me to develop as a person with a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

“We both enjoyed a wonderful experience of a lifetime that we will never forget.

“I would like to thank Newtownabbey Borough Council, Gilbert Sister Cities, the Serrano family, Jim Holmes from 16th Newtownabbey Boys’ Brigade Company (based at Belfast City Mission, Rathcoole) and my own parents for everything they have done to allow me to be part of the Student Exchange Programme.”