Cynthia Wilson is like any mother when it comes to her children; protective, loving and nurturing.
The only significant difference between Wilson and most mothers is that she has hundreds of children. Wilson, the coordinator for the outreach program at Destin United Methodist Church plays a major role in the Destin International Students program.
"A lot of the students call me mom, momma, ma," Wilson said. "I hosted four girls last summer from China and we still Skype weekly to keep in touch. I keep in touch with so many of the students."
Every year, Destin becomes the temporary home for a large number of international students who flock to the area where they will live, work and play. Providing students the opportunity to travel to a foreign country, the J-1 Student Visa permits students to work in their host community for three to four months.
The Destin International Students Outreach program was born last year out of a horrific tragedy. Galina Bumbolova, an international student from Moldova who was visiting and working in Destin last summer, was killed while riding her bicycle to work in the dark.
Destin churches, groups and residents quickly rallied together to honor Bumbolovas memory while welcoming the students to the area. After successfully hosting a southern-style dinner for the incoming students last year, Wilson and the other volunteers are gearing up for an even larger turnout this year.
"At last years welcome dinner we had about 100 students who came," Wilson said. "We also raffled off items including gift cards and 50 bicycles packages with a lock, helmet and a light."
"We never give a bicycle away without a helmet, lock and a light, in memory of Galina," Wilson said. "And we encourage them to always use their lights so another tragedy can be avoided."
The Destin Life Center at the Destin United Methodist Church will host the students at 7:30 p.m. Sunday as they welcome the world for another meet and greet dinner.
Wilson told The Log they will be serving up a variety of food, including pasta with marinara or Alfredo sauce, salads and options with and without meat for the students who have dietary limitations.
"We learned last year that some cultures donít eat certain things, for instance Muslims don't eat pork, so we'll have a lot of options this year," Wilson said.
This year, more than 200 students are expected to attend and 100 bicycle packages are slated to be raffled off to the students. In addition to the food and raffles, the welcome dinner provides a unique opportunity for the incoming students to become familiar with the community, to make connections with each other and their support system.
According to Wilson, many of the international students have an idea of what they think living and working in America will be but when they arrive, it's much tougher than they had expected.
"Many of them come here and after paying rent or paying for their hotel really don't have the money to buy food," she said. "So thatís where we all come in."
In addition to hosting Sunday nights welcome dinner, the folks from the Destin International Students Outreach also provide a weekly meal every Wednesday night to the students and a food bank where they can pick up groceries when money is tight. They also offer both moral and emotional support to the students who are so far from home.
"It's a community-wide effort," Wilson said. She added that without the help of the entire community; the churches, businesses and residents, this program would not be possible.
"This is really all about helping out and providing the same level of care you would want for your own child while traveling abroad," Wilson said.
Wilson told The Log that the volunteers support crosses all lines for the students, including healthcare and matching up as many students as possible with appropriate host families so they can avoid the hassle of apartment or hotel life.
To volunteer or donate to the Destin International Outreach program email Cynthia Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the program, visit the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Destin-International-Students-Summer-2013/433917810030469?fref=ts.