A Warm Welcome in Oulu!

GSE Team Finland arrived in Oulu on Thursday after saying goodbye to our fantastic hosts in Kuusamo. Thanks again to Pentti Raivio and the Kussamo Rotary Club for all you did to make our visit to your area incredible!

Team members are settled into our host families and are once again blessed with great people who have not just opened their homes but also their hearts! After unpacking and a bit of time to get settled we met at Sokeri-Jussi, a restaurant here in Oulu. Our team enjoyed a fantastic meal and the chance to get to know each others host families and review the program that local Rotarians have spent countless hours preparing ahead of our arrival. The team is excited to call Oulu home for the next week!

City of Oulu

On Friday morning our team met with Kalervo Ukkola, Secretary General and Head of the City Office.


The Oulu region has approximately 250,000 residents and is the capital of northern Scandinavia. Residents are drawn to the municipality for it educational and cultural center, trade and finance center, logistics center and center of experience. The city is rich in history yet continues to grow and expand. The community boasts the title of the youngest population in Europe with the average age is 36.6 years. There is a definite creative atmosphere with international trends and lively culture, including the world air guitar championships!!! There is also a growing knowledge based industry with over 30,000 students studying in the city. Oulu University is the second largest university in Finland with faculties of humanities, education, science, medicine, economics and technology. Oulu has also put significant effort into forming an innovation alliance which has resulted in over 600 high tech companies to operate in the area and created over 10,000 positions in the technology sector. Our team with have the opportunity to visit the technology park next week. Please take a moment to check out this amazing video showcasing Oulu:

Oulu – People and the City

Our team then walked to the market square and visited the market hall where we discovered some rather unique things!

Market Hall, Oulu




Tuira Rotary Club

After a very cold, wet walk GSE Team Finland attended the Tuira Rotary Club meeting and had the opportunity to share District 5580 with their members. We met so many great people who made us feel right at home. Tara even unexpectedly met another cousin! The magic of GSE continues to grow and inspire our team.

Tuira Rotary Club Presentation

Tour of the City of Oulu

The weather in Finland has been rainy and cold and Friday was definitely NOT an exception. Our team was grateful to stay comfortable inside a bus as we toured the city learning about the history. It was great overview of a city that has persevered through hardship time and time again. Thanks to our amazing tour guide for the personal attention!


Liminka Bay Birdwatching

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The team had an outdoor bird watching adventure this morning.  We arrived at Liminka Bay Visitor Center shortly after 10 am.  We took a short walk through the wetlands, down a duckboard trail, to one of the five bird watching towers located here.  From the tower, and with the help of our binoculars, we were able to see hundreds of birds in the wetlands.  Everything from ducks and geese to sea eagles, swans and sandpipers could be seen from this tower.  In 2011, 286 different bird species were observed in the more than 12,000 hectares which compromises this wetlands area.  After bird watching for a bit, the team headed back to the visitor center for a warm cup of coffee and some sweets.

The visitor center also has an exhibition on birds maintained by Metsähallitus, Finland’s first Ramsar Wetland Center, guided tours, a nature shop, and some amazing photographs of local birds.  After playing some interactive games, reading about different species and their migration patterns, and taking in all the information we could, we hit the road.

This was a great stop and despite the rainy weather, we saw many birds and had a fabulous time!  Kiitos Liminka Bay Visitor Center!


Kudos to Kuusamo – Great Visit!

Our stay in Kuusamo was brief but wonderful. We were kept busy from the moment we arrived at Ruka, a beautiful holiday/ski resort located just over 20 km from the town of Kuusamo. Here we met with Ville Aho, director of marketing and sales for the family-owned resort. We were impressed with their customer-centric strategies, from the quality of accommodations to services provided to guests, and the fact that everything (including the ski hill) is within easy walking distance. We couldn’t believe that Ruka has up to 250 ski days in a year!

Like many of the places we’ve visited tourism is a major economic driver, contributing to about 20% of local business. It was clear that our host, Pentti Raivio, was very proud of his community and passionate about what the Kuusamo region has to offer. He arranged for our team to stay at a charming 19th century country home called Pohjolan Pirtti where we had fabulous saunas and even better meals. Thank you for the amazing hospitality!

Pohjolan Pirtti

Pohjolan Pirtti

In Kuusamo forestry is also an important contributor to local industry. We visited a sawmill belonging to Pölkky Oy, the largest privately owned wood company in northern Finland (yes, colleagues, I took lots of notes!  – Kat). What makes this sawmill quite unique is the diverse range of pre-cut products it develops for customers throughout Europe, northern Africa and Japan, continually adapting to meet consumer needs.

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We also visited a related company, Kuusamo Hirsitalot Oy, producer of log houses and villas. These homes are gorgeous (check our their website), and what’s really interesting is that their production line only has two staff: the entire process is automated. Every piece is programmed to be cut precisely to each home’s design plan, which buyers can customize. We all kind of want one now…

The following day we met with Jari and Seija at Naturpolis, an economic development organization for the Kuusamo area. We had some great discussions about local business and the challenges of managing a growing tourism industry while trying to attract youth back from larger cities. The same theme carried through our morning and our meeting with Kuusamo Mayor Timo Halonen and several city managers. Again we saw true passion for their community and genuine desire to apply innovative strategies to serve a changing population. Very inspiring visit!

The team with Kuusamo Mayor Timo Halonen and some of our vocational visit hosts.

The team with Kuusamo Mayor Timo Halonen and some of our vocational visit hosts.

In the afternoon we each again had excellent vocational visits in areas ranging from healthcare, tourism, foster care, marketing, banking and natural resource management. We capped the evening off with a wonderful dinner and presentation at Pohjolan Pirtti with the Kuusamo Rotary Club. AND we had a visit from Santa Claus later that evening…again! How does he do it?! He must be a big fan of this team.

Thank you again to Pentti and the Kuusamo Rotary Club. We had a great visit! Now on to Oulu. Hard to believe we are more than halfway through our trip! Our luggage certainly isn’t getting any smaller…


Tara’s Vocational Visit in Kuusamo

Today I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with some Social Services professionals in Kuusamo, Finland.  I first met with Heidi, a child protection worker for Kuusamo.  She was able to give me a little insight into the needs of youth in this area, what it means to be in government care here, and the requirements of foster parents and other staff working with these youth.  There are currently 200 children in the youth child protection system but only 47 of these live outside their family’s home.  Of those 47 living outside the home, 34 are living in the custody of the municipality or city and 13 are in voluntary placements.  There are facilities in Kuusamo that function as a group home, some that focus on independent living skills, and some that are like our foster homes in the USA which they refer to as “family care” here in Kuusamo.  The family care homes are set up and run like foster homes in the States; where foster parents care for the needs of unrelated youth in their home.  Family care placements are the first option for placing a youth as the least restrictive option.  According to Heidi, there are placements made within families (i.e. grandparents caring for their grandchildren) but this is very rare and is new to this community.  The number one reason youth are placed into foster care in Kuusamo is due to psychological problems suffered by his or her parents, followed closely by parental issues with drugs and alcohol.  Foster parents are reimbursed/paid by the government for each youth placed (average is around 1000€ per month) and the rate is calculated by the government based on the child’s age and needs.  

After this, I was able to visit a family care home in Kuusamo.  This home served the needs of teenage males and females and helped teach them independent living skills.  Each child was treated as a part of the family here and returned to his or her biological family for biweekly weekend visits. Throughout their time as a family care home, Oili and Jari have had over 100 youth come in and out of their home. They help facilitate art, music and animal therapies with their youth. They also own a riding stable where the children in foster care can learn to care for horses and even learn to ride. The stables are open to tourists as well and there are also therapies for disabled individuals.

There are many similarities between the United States and Finland’s social services but also many differences. Today I was able to learn some of both and the exchange of professional information is a valuable souvenir I will be taking from Kuusamo.

Thank You Kemijarvi!

Team Finland was warmly greeted in the city of Kemijarvi by local Rotarians who again made us feel just like we were at home. Sunday was a much needed day of rest for the team. We were able to sleep late and have PIZZA for lunch! A special thanks to Lasse Ketonen for the absolutely amazing accommodations and delicious meals at Uitonpirtti!

Team Finland’s accommodations in Kemijarvi

Monday we were able to take visit The International Art Center Puustelli thanks to Rotarian and world-famous sculptor Urpo Karri. Many sculptures from artists around the world where on display. Our team is looking forward to following this summer’s exhibition online in late June!


Team Finland in Kemijarvi

We spent the afternoon touring Porkka, a refrigeration service and cold storage manufacturing plant. The company employs 1300 people across Finland and is an internationally recognized designer and manufacturer of refrigeration units. Their clients include commercial kitchens, hotels, hospitals, and restraurants throughout Europe. Porkka provided jobs to 41 people in Kemijarvi who produce 115 units per week.







I can be the first to say that Rotary International and the GSE program can make amazing things happen on so many levels! Today I had the amazing opportunity to travel to a small village just outside of Kuusamo and not only meet my Finnish relatives but also take a step back in time and see the place my ancestors came from. It was a wonderfully emotional day and I was able to meet three of my late grandfather’s cousins. We visited at the old homestead, had some authentic Finnish foods, took some photos and traced back our family trees together. They didn’t speak English but Our host for today, Mikko, was a wonderful translator for us. He is married to my distant cousin Tiina! I have some photos I can post later (once my camera battery recharges) but I had to mention this amazing day and my sincere “Kiitos” to GSE for making such an amazing thing happen! Thank you so much for another unexpected amazing adventure!

-Tara Hokuf

Trust Yourself and Take a Chance: Missy’s Vocational Experience

Today I was honored to represent Rotary District 5580 and St. Joseph’s Area Health Services at the Lapin Sairaanhoitopiiri (Lapland Hospital District) in Rovaniemi. I was able to spend the entire day with Director of the Hospital District Jari Jokela and his colleagues who not only tolerated but actually encouraged my questions and fueled my enthusiasm!

A Bit About Healthcare in Finland
There are 320 Municipality districts in Finland. The Lapland Hospital District aims to provide the highest quality in specialized health care to the over 118,000 residents of the 15 northern most municipality districts in Finland. The hospital in Rovaniemi was established in 1895, currently has 250 beds, and employs around 1,600 people. The public healthcare system is funded by the municipalities/ taxpayers money. The government provides direction and monitoring by creating legistation and stating benchmarks. Recent research continues to indicate Finland is the leader in providing high-quality, cost-effective healthcare compared to other Nordic countries.

Organizational Structure
I had flash backs to my Principles of Management class this morning as we discussed the complex nature of organization in Finnish healthcare. The municipality council (politicians who are elected every 4-years) meet 2-3 times per year to establish goals and the budget. The next level is the board which is made up of 7 members each from a different political party. The board meets once per month to deal with operational decisions. The Director, or CEO, is next (Jari Jokela). The Director then oversees a management group (CFO, director of nursing, quality, patient safety, development…), and Divisional or Departmental Managers (MD’s who have limited management/leadership education). There are currently 150 managers at the Lapland Hospital District and most of them must report to two different people. There has been significant conversation in streamlining the management and leadership structure within the operation. Reorganization by moving toward a process orientated structure is likely in the near future as Mikko, the Development Director, looks to current managers to lead the change. With all change, staff resistance is always a concern and it is no different here in Finland. Staff buy in and crossing department/division lines requires openness to a new concept in patient centered, process orientated care.

LEAN Methodologies
Lapland Hospital District has implemented the lean method to reduce waste and improve productivity. 20 employees are selected to multidisciplinary teams to evaluate current processes and discover waste in productivity. The first year of the program employees were able to successfully implement change that saved the organization over 500,000 Euros. Staff was reported to appreciate permission from upper-level management to develop work processes and were motivated by the increased efficiency allowing increased time for direct patient care.

Humanly Efficient Hospital
There are four sections to a “Humanly Efficient Hospital”.
1. Education: Evaluating Capabilities
2. Leadership and Management Structures
3. Knowledge: Professionals at various stages of their careers sharing their knowledge
4. Internal Motivation: Employee Satisfaction
After a 3-year research project focusing on improving employee satisfaction, the Lapland Hospital District discovered the number one issue was employees wanted more time with their patients and less non-patient orientated work. (Sounds a bit like home!) Changes have been implemented including increasing support services to allow patient care providers to have more time with patients. Several other changes have also been implemented including Department Pharmacists. The goal of creating a “Humanly Efficient Hospital” is in it’s infancy but is exciting and positive.

Technology: Outreach Services
The Lapland Health Care District is the largest by area in all of Finland. 90% of patients live within a 100km of Rovaniemi but others drive nearly 500km… that is a really LONG way to have a baby!!! Agreements have been negotiated with both Norway and Sweden to provide care for Finnish citizens who chose to cross borders for healthcare. Norway is a popular choice for many Sami people in northern Finland.
Development of technology to better serve patients who would have to travel a significant distance has been a goal within the organization for quite some time, actually since 1995. After pilot projects, TEL LAPPI III was launched bringing video conferencing, data security, emergency medical service system (imagine a neurology consult in the ambulance in route!) electronic referral and more importantly a feedback system from the specialist to general practitioner, digital imaging, and image transfer and archiving. The goals of this project have been achieved and the 2.2-million Euros invested seems to be well worth it when looking at the outcome and effectiveness measures.

Challenges in Healthcare: Common Across the Globe
I asked Director Jari Jokela about the challenges his hospital faces. The list was so familiar.
1. Financing: The possiblities are always more than the budget can support.
2. Aging Population: The baby-boomers are retiring, decreasing the workforce and increasing the patient load.
3. Long Distances: Outreach to surrounding communities is very important.
4. National Political Issue of Health and Social/Welfare Reform: Trend is form larger municipalities to increase effieciency and cost-effectiveness.

Personal Growth
I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange. Today I had the honor of spending the entire day networking with leaders in the medical field… not just a quick hello… but personal attention and an investment in me as a person and also in my professional development. I was able to collaborate, exchange ideas, and create lasting professional relationships. I need to thank all of you back home who have made this experience possible for me… My awesome club in Park Rapids who encouraged me and have believed in me every step of the way, DG Don for inspiring me and mentoring me, the district GSE-committee for selecting me and working SO hard to give my team this chance, my co-workers who have been supportive of my desire to be part of something bigger than myself, and my friends and family who have sacrificed, pitched in, and shown me love and understanding.

Final Notes
I ended my time with Jari by asking him if he had any advice for me. He was quiet, then a smile crossed his face before he said “Trust yourself and take the chance Melissa. When God gives you a job he gives you the sense.” I haven’t stopped smiling since!


The view from Ounasvaara over looking Rovaniemi

My new buddy Diva! She even understands English, yes, a bilingual dog!

*** Tomorrow GSE Team Finland will visit the Polar Circle and meet SANTA CLAUS before traveling 85km to the east to Kemijarvi. Thanks for following our journey!