BY ANDREA VANVALKENBURG
---- — PLATTSBURGH — When Leo Carvajal-Olivares embarked on a 17-hour flight to the United States, he knew it would be a trip of a lifetime.
But he never imagined the lasting impact he would have in the Plattsburgh area.
“It was amazing to see someone come in and feel so connected and be so welcomed by the North Country,” said Patrick Monette, who met Carvajal-Olivares about nine years ago while living in Chile.
They became friends then, and the Chilean man was visiting Patrick on his recent trip here.
Though Carvajal-Olivares had once visited Utah, his month-long stay in Plattsburgh provided many firsts for him, Monette said.
“He’d never seen snow. He did a lot of new things while he was here.”
The pair stayed busy through Carvajal-Olivares’s visit, venturing to Lake Placid, visiting New York City and the Ice Castle in Saranac Lake and spending many evenings with Monette’s family.
It was morning visits with Monette’s mother, Nancy, that led Carvajal-Olivares to the Plattsburgh YMCA.
When Mrs. Monette attended morning fitness classes at the center, he set out on his own workout routine to keep busy.
One morning, when he ventured upstairs to find Mrs. Monette, he discovered the Zumba class led by Lisa Menia.
“It’s like he found his home away from home,” Patrick laughed as he recalled Carvajal-Olivares’s instant connection to the dance class, which serves participants of all ages, including a group from the Traumatic Brain Injury Center at SUNY Plattsburgh.
As a dance instructor at a YMCA in Chile, Carvajal-Olivares, a childhood-education teacher, was welcomed into the class with open arms and soon became an integral part of the group.
“He really knew how to work the crowd,” said Patti Warner, program director at the local Y.
“He brought such a vibrancy and energy.”
Though Carvajal-Olivares spoke little English, Warner said, “there were no barriers with Leo. He was so easy to follow, and he’d bring such an energy out of everyone.”
For the remainder of his stay, Carvajal-Olivares attended the Zumba class, bringing his own music and inspiration to participants, whose numbers grew during his visit.
“The room was packed,” said Mrs. Monette, who tried Zumba for the first time under Carvajal-Olivares’s guidance.
“He just really brought it up to another level.”
She said Carvajal-Olivares and Menia worked great together, encouraging the class and inspiring the diverse group.
“And watching them dance,” Mrs. Monette said, “was just like watching ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ They moved together so well.”
By the time Carvajal-Olivares’s visit was over, it wasn’t just the Monette family who was saddened by his return to Chile.
“It was very emotional for a lot of people,” Warner said. “It was really sad. There were a lot of tears.”
Patrick stays in frequent contact with Carvajal-Olivares — who is studying for a second degree to work with special-needs children — and said he hopes his friend will one day return to the Adirondacks.
“He still asks about and misses everyone. It was really exciting to have him come here.”