By Starrla Cray
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Long-distance friendships can be tough, especially when that distance is more than 9,000 miles.
But Dassel-Cokato Middle School teacher Jill Kittock and her family have made it work, staying connected to a family in Australia for the past 30 years.
The friendship began in the 1986-87 school year, when Jill’s parents, Dale and Bonnie Engel, hosted exchange student Tony Corr of Melbourne, Australia. Tony was 18, the same age as Jill, who was a freshman at St. Cloud State University at the time.
Corr had already finished his 12th year of school in Australia, but enrolled as a high school senior at Howard Lake -Waverly High School to experience an American school system.
“Tony fit in really well in both our family and at HL-W High School,” Jill recalled. “He was a kicker on the football team, where his Australian football experience came in handy.”
After Tony left, the family stayed in touch. In the early years, it was through letters and phone calls. Now, they enjoy connecting via video Messenger.
Nothing beats an in-person visit, though. In 1997, Bonnie and Dale, along with Jill, her son, and a friend, attended Tony’s wedding, spending three weeks in Australia and New Zealand.
Tony has visited Minnesota multiple times since his initial stay, and Tony’s oldest son, Atticus, came to Minnesota as an informal exchange student two years ago. Atticus spent his Australian summer break (December and January) staying with Jill and her family.
Finn’s recent visit
Recently, Atticus’ younger brother, Finnian “Finn,” had a similar opportunity to stay with Jill’s family, and was in Minnesota from Nov. 26 through Jan. 28. During the trip, Finn’s parents came out and stayed with Dale and Bonnie for a one-week visit.
“It’s been really good,” Finn said near the end of his stay. “A lot of people say, ‘why would you want to go to school on break?’ but for me it is still like a vacation.”
Finn said he chose fun classes to take at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School, such as agriculture, art, English, and physical education.
“I even convinced Finn to visit my classroom at the Dassel-Cokato Middle School on his only day off from school at HLWW to speak to my eighth-graders about Australia,” said Jill.
Overall, Jill describes having Finn live with their family as a “wonderful experience.”
TJ agreed, commenting that “it’s like having another brother.” TJ’s other brothers, Sam and Max, are currently students at North Dakota State University.
During Finn’s visit, the family watched a lot of Wild hockey, Vikings football, and Gopher basketball on TV and even got to attend Wild and Timberwolves games.
Finn also played sports, and participated on the Laker JV and C-squad basketball teams.
“It was fun watching him play in many games,” Jill noted.
Finn got a taste of rural life when Jill’s son, TJ, took him to his job at the Bakeberg farm near Waverly.
“Finn helped TJ milk a few cows, which was an interesting experience for him since he lives in the city of Melbourne,” Jill said.
Finn’s home is about 15 minutes from the main city, which has a population of almost 4 million.
In addition to being more rural, the Howard Lake area is also much colder than Finn’s hometown.
“The biggest thing I’ve had to get used to is the weather,” Finn said in late January.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the average high temperature of Melbourne in January is 79 degrees F. Their coldest month is July, with an average high of 57 degrees F.
“I tried ice skating a couple times,” Finn said. “It didn’t go too well, since I had never skated or Rollerbladed before.”
Finn’s return to Australia took 25 hours, and due to the time difference, he lost a full day. Jill said he only had a half-day “break” before his new school year started, so she guessed he’d be tired his first day back.
Although Finn hasn’t been gone long, the Kittocks already miss having him around.
“We would love to go as a family to visit the Corrs in the next few years,” Jill said. “They have already talked about coming back, too.”