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A special reunion: Former exchange students reunite 40 years later

By Staff | Mar 3, 2012

Michael Pistella Former Cape Coral resident Donna Sanborn, left, and Belgium resident Martine Lekaene visited with each other this week, 40 years after first meeting when Lekaene was an exchange student staying in the Cape. Sanborn lived with Lekaene and her family for a time the next year as an American exchange student

For two families – one from Cape Coral and the other from across the Atlantic – a student exchange program 40 years ago has led to some lifetime memories, and lifelong friendships.

Last week, Martine Lekaene from Huy, Belgium, came back to Cape Coral to visit Paul Sanborn and his family. In July 1971, Martine, then 18 and having just graduated from high school, visited the city as part of a Rotary-sponsored exchange program.

Sanborn and his family, along with several other Cape Rotary Club members, played host to Martine, whose maiden name was Closset. And, as an additional part of the exchange program, Sanborn’s daughter, Donna Sanborn, traveled back to Belgium with Martine following her month-long stay in Southwest Florida.

Reuniting this week was a special occasion for Martine, who was accompanied on this trip by her husband Phillippe, Paul and his wife Mildred and Donna. It was all like a big family reunion, they said.

“You know what’s interesting, it’s like 40 years didn’t pass,” Donna said, noting that they all just picked up where they left off, sharing memories and providing updates. Donna hadn’t seen Martine in four decades.

According to Paul, since the student exchange in 1971, the two families have remained close, even across the miles. Paul and Mildred have visited Martine and her family in Huy, a city of 20,000 not far from Brussels, several times, and Martine has visited the Cape two other times.

“She’s like part of the family,” Paul said.

On one of those trips, Martine brought her two daughters, and said that since she and Donna both now have grandkids, that “maybe our grandchildren will continue, too” with the family travels back and forth.

During this nearly week-long visit, the group stayed busy visiting such places as Useppa Island, the Shell Factory, Fort Myers Beach, Cape Harbour and, of course, Paul Sanborn Park.

Paul, a long-time resident who worked for Gulf American and the Rosen bothers in the early years here in the Cape, now serves as the city’s historian. In addition to being an active member of the Rotary, he also is involved with the Cape Historical Museum and more.

Although the Cape has grown tremendously since she was last here, Martine remarked that it really didn’t look much different to her today.

“The houses are all the same, you know,” she said. “Just seeing them, you don’t see much difference.”

She did comment that the new Veterans Memorial Bridge is quite spectacular. When she was last here, there was just one, two-lane bridge into town.

Reminiscing about her first trip to Cape Coral in 1971, Martine, who has owned a dress shop for 31 years in the town of Wanze, two miles away from Huy, said in addition to visiting the beach and the Southwest Florida’s other attractions, she got to fly an airplane – even though she hadn’t even learned to drive a car at the time. Cape resident Johnny AlIred took Martine to the Florida Key in his private airplane.

“It was a little two-seat plane,” Martine recalled, and Allred asked if she wanted to fly, so she took the wheel. The real thrill on that trip, she said, occurred when, as a joke, Allred made the plane nose dive.

Another “adventure” was participating in the July 4th parade in the Cape.

“I was riding in the back of this convertible, and waving at the people,” she smiled, shrugging as if she wasn’t really sure why she was in the parade in the first place.

Donna, too, said her trip to Belgium as part of the exchange program (the two were the first participants involving the Cape Rotary program) was a unique experience.

And like her parents, Martine’s mother and father accepted Donna with open arms.

“My daughter was welcomed into their home even though they didn’t know her,” Paul said, saying how wonderful the Clossets are.

Producing a large map of Europe from the back of a scrapbook featuring newspaper clips – from the Cape Coral Breeze and from Belgium, Donna and Martine recalled a car trip the Clossets took the Cape teen on, first in 1971 and when Donna returned to Belgium in 1972. Using a colored marker or pen, Martine’s father marked the route they took the first time, and a different colored marker for the second trip.

Philippe said the trip was especially nice, because, he said, it would be almost impossible today to take such a lengthy car journey – due to the high cost of gasoline in Europe, which is double what drivers here pay for a gallon of fuel, he said.

Paul also brought up a movie he called “An American in Paris,” that Martine’s father filmed on one of Donna’s trips. While it’s old and the colors have faded, Paul said they all enjoyed watching the film again last week. Donna, who now resides in Fort Myers after having lived in California for a while, said she’d like to go back to Belgium for another visit.

“It’s something I haven’t done, and I thought I need to go back.”

Donna and Martine now plan to use Skype as a means of staying in touch.

With Martine, Donna, Paul and Mildred making several trips back and forth and the people in Belgium being so receptive each time, Paul said, “A lot of people in Huy know about Cape Coral.”