By Andrea Arnold
Amber Whelpton was in Guérande France, a town of 15,000, four hours drive from Paris. She was supposed to complete the second half of a high school exchange program and be in Europe for three months.
“When I arrived in France at the beginning of February the coronavirus had not yet affected Europe with little to no cases so I thought I was starting a pretty safe trip,” she said.
“As the weeks passed I could see COVID-19 slowly becoming bigger and bigger. It started with my trip to London being cancelled followed by my trip to Paris being cancelled. Within a month of being in France, all of Italy went into lockdown and was shut down – with France soon to follow. The last two weeks of being in France were crazy. The organization I was with for the exchange was preparing families that their children may be repatriated from France. At one point there was an option for families to decide whether they wanted their children to stay in France or come home. But within two days of that option being offered we were notified that all students had flights booked for March 22.”
During the last week Whelpton was in France, all of France was shutting down. “The schools, universities and all nonessential stores were shut down,” she said. “All citizens were also told to stay in their houses/yards except for necessary outings. There were police and military out on the roads and sidewalks monitoring traffic. Anyone leaving their house had to have a special form indicating why they were out of the house, for what purposes, and how long they were going to be out. This form had to be shown to authorities upon request. The last week in France was difficult because I had to spend my whole week inside. No one was allowed to go anywhere except your own backyard – if you had one which thankfully my host family did. The voyage home was a type of traveling I’ve never done. Both me and my host family needed to get special government documents allowing us to leave the house to take me to the airport.
When I arrived at the airport, it was empty except for the other Canadian students who were being extracted from France along with me. When my flight arrived in Paris it was strange. The normally crazy busy hub of an airport was dead. The airport was eerily quiet with all stores shut down. Most travelers were wearing masks and gloves and constantly sanitizing with hand sanitizer.There was more staff then travellers, and all flight and airport staff were wearing masks and gloves. As well workers were constantly cleaning and disinfecting everything. There were no people other than the Canadians who were getting on the international flight I was flying on. When I arrived in Toronto there were more people than Paris but still it was crazily empty. After arriving home I figured out that I was on one of the last flights out of France to Canada and that the day after I left France was beginning to close down their airports.”
Noah Keim had left to train with Youth With A Mission University of the Nations in Kona Hawaii shortly after Christmas. He planned to complete several months of training before going to put what he had learned into action in Fiji. Keim’s experience was vastly different from Whelpton in that the Hawaiian islands didn’t have the quantity of confirmed cases. “One of the doctors said we had a couple of cases on the big island,” said Keim. But at the time of the students’ departure, nothing had been labeled life-threatening.
The US President started to make decisions restricting travel and, once the word came that he had asked that all visitors to the United States return home, YWAM made the decision to send the students home.
“All our outreaches were being postponed or cancelled because of the closing of borders,” said Keim. “So we were sent home before our own borders were closed”
It was a shorter trip home for Keim. He observed extensive screening on the USA side, but in Vancouver there was no screening and nothing in Edmonton either. He arrived back home on March 23, 2020.
Both Keim and Whelpton obeyed the 14-day quarantine mandate. Whelpton spent her time at the home of relatives. It wasn’t feasible for her whole family to quarantine, so when there was an option for a close and safe location, she took it. “It’s been a nice break,” she said. “It’s good to slow down once in a while.” She spent her days resting, playing guitar, baking, reading her Bible and, when possible, being outside in the forest surrounding the home.
Keim’s whole family stuck it out with him. They have busied themselves with school work, farm chores, cooking, naps, cross-country skiing around the property and cleaning.
On Sunday, April 5, 2020, Whelpton was able to return home. The next day marked the end of the Keims’ quarantine. The experience was something they never expected.
“It’s definitely been an exchange to remember – a story I’ll tell to my kids one day!” said Whelpton who is looking forward to returning to her family.