Professional exchange program offers visitors a view of how social programs can work

Veronika Porubčanská of Bratislava, Slovakia, left, spent 40 days in the U.S. as part of a professional exchange program. She spent most of her time interning with Kristen Gerwin, right, the executive director of Oak House.
Veronika Porubčanská of Bratislava, Slovakia, left, spent 40 days in the U.S. as part of a professional exchange program. She spent most of her time interning with Kristen Gerwin, right, the executive director of Oak House.

PORT CLINTON - On May 26, Veronika Porubčanská of Bratislava, Slovakia, returned home from Port Clinton, hoping to mimic some of the social service connectiveness she witnessed in Ottawa County.

Individuals and agencies across the county have worked hard to create a foundation of support for people living with mental health struggles, drug addiction or poverty. Now Porubčanská hopes to take that philosophy of collaboration back to Slovakia, where she works with youths living in marginalized circumstances.

Porubčanská was in the U.S. thanks to Great Lakes Consortium (GLC) for International Training and Development, a U.S. Department of State Professional Fellows Program managed by Great Lakes Community Action Partnership (GLCAP). The program provides a professional exchange and internship experience for professionals from Eastern European countries. Porubčanská was part of the 12-member GLC Professional Fellows Spring 2023 Delegation from Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. The participants spent 40 days in cities across the U.S., learning about American social service resources and philosophies.

Slovakian visitor spends time visiting Ottawa County facilities

Porubčanská spent most of her internship under the tutelage of Kristen Gerwin, the executive director of Oak House, a nonprofit organization that serves adults living with mental health issues, chronic mental illness or substance abuse. Gerwin not only introduced Porubčanská to the many services at Oak House, she also created a tailored professional experience that exposed Porubčanská to resources across Ottawa County and introduced her to American culture.

Porubčanská gave a presentation on her work in Slovakia to members of the Rotary Club of Port Clinton; observed a Crossfit class for youths from the juvenile detention center and their probation officers; volunteered at Portage Resale Center; attended an Ottawa County Prevention Coalition meeting; accompanied members of the Ottawa County Drug Task Force on a trip to Danbury Schools; and attended the Walleye Festival.

“It’s a cultural as well as a professional exchange program. She shares her culture with the host organization, and we share ours with her,” Gerwin said.

Porubčanská has a notebook full of ideas and inspiration that she will take back home. She hopes to find a way to implement those concepts into the very different Slovakian culture.

“I will save these ideas because they are brilliant,” she said. “We do a lot of drug prevention in Slovakia, so the Drug Task Force presentation was very useful for me.”

Exchange visitor impressed with peer support programs

Porubčanská’s eyes were opened to the strengths of the local certified peer support program that trains people in recovery to help others new to recovery.

Veronika Porubčanská, left, met with social service agencies around Ottawa County, experienced American culture through events like the Walleye Festival, and taught programs, as she is doing here at Oak House. With her are, from left, Natalie Kohler, Oak House Program Coordinator Leslee Gilleland, Oak House Executive Director Kristen Gerwin and Tim McKnight.

“I learned a lot about the peer support system. We don’t have that at the certified level. We try to find individuals who have lived through the experience to engage with others, but we have to train them ourselves,” Porubčanská said. “I’ve learned a lot about peer support and hope to implement some of those ideas. Slovakia is a different culture with a different system and different mindset, but I’m taking some of the details and hope to implement them.”

Viewing the countywide collaboration between multiple social service agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGO) made the strongest impact on Porubčanská. In Bratislava, where she works with youths struggling with issues such as poverty, addiction and racism, the many agencies that try to help are not connected. They each work hard within their circle of influence, but, through her experience in Ottawa County, Porubčanská recognized the potential to create a stronger foundation of impact through collaboration.

“I hope to bring together government officials, elementary schools, school psychologists and NGOs that work in addiction and the sex business,” she said. “We’ve been talking for such a long time that we were missing relationships. Sometimes, the police don’t know there are social workers in town.”

It is the third time Gerwin participated in the GLS professional exchange program. In the fall, she will travel to Slovakia for a reunion with other GLS members and to spend a week continuing her mentorship with Porubčanská.

“I’ll get to know her community and her organization, and we can fine-tune her project ideas,” Gerwin said.

Contact correspondent Sheri Trusty at

This article originally appeared on Port Clinton News Herald: Through exchange program, mental health professionals share ideas