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Ex-Change It Up

Hosting international students fun, fulfilling

August 20, 2013
By BETSY BETHEL - Life Associate Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Ask three people why they enjoy playing host to international exchange students, and you're likely to get three different answers.

It's exciting and keeps them young, they say. It gives their life additional purpose. It builds bridges and brings the world close to home. It gives their own kids a chance to make lifelong friends.

All of these reasons - and more - were cited by Ohio Valley baby boomers and seniors who have opened their hearts and homes to international exchange students.

Article Photos

Yanting and Linxiao, West Liberty University students from China, stayed with Lori Morris in Bridgeport over Christmas break last year and prepared a large Chinese meal for the family.

Aletia White of Bridgeport has hosted at least one exchange student - usually more - a year for the past 26 years. She estimates that including both shorter- and longer-term students, she's had 75 kids stay with her and her husband, Bill.

"I have hosted every year since 1988. When I started, my kids were 10, 8, 6 and 4. I thought it would be fun." And it was. "The ad said 'open your heart, open our home, enrich your life.' I wanted to do that."

White is now a placement manager with North West Services, one of the smaller national exchange programs. She maintains relationships with many of the students she has hosted - Facebook has greatly impacted the ease of doing so - and so do her children, who are now all grown.

Now, her grandchildren are learning about other parts of the world and meeting what may turn out to be lifelong friends, as well.

Said her 13-year-old grandson Tyler Roberts of "hanging out" with the exchange students: "I like it. It's fun." He has gotten to go along on trips his grandmother takes the students to Washington, D.C., and New York City. He also is friends with them on Facebook, keeping up with their lives all around the world.

Even White's father in Maynard hosted two exchange students a year when he was age 75-80.

"He kept busy with them," White said.

White said hosting "keeps us younger. It would be really boring if I just came home and looked at my husband every night. 'What do you want to do tonight?' 'Nothing.'" With her students involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities at Bridgeport High School, there is always something going on.

White's students this year are Benjamin from Denmark, who arrived two weeks ago, and Marielia from Albania, who is due in on Tuesday. Benjamin, who plays private football at home, got here just in time to join Bridgeport Bulldogs' two-a-day practices. He is looking forward to playing football and attending a college football game.

Ginger Kabala of Wheeling, agreed that hosting keeps a person active. She was 65 when she became a placement coordinator with PAX Academic Exchange and subsequently hosted her first teen, 15-year-old Min Ho Jin from Seoul, South Korea. She admitted that, never having her own kids, adjusting to having a teen was "a jolt" at first, but the educator and nurturer in her emerged quickly, and she enjoyed it. She and her husband, John, kept Min Ho for a second year as a private renter and served as his "American family" all the way through his college years at Penn State University, from which he graduated in 2010. He has returned to Seoul to work and she hopes to see him again in October in Hawaii.

"He's like my son; he really is. I have a Korean son, a Korean daughter and a German son," she said, referring to two other students she hosted. She is now retired from PAX, and is focusing her energies on leading the South Wheeling Preservation Alliance. She said her exchange experience broadened her horizons and enriched her life.

"They always say, you complain and whine (about world problems) and don't do anything, and I thought, well, here's my opportunity to make a contribution to peace in the world and show these students what America is really like."

That's one of the reasons the U.S. Department of State continues to allow visas for more and more students from abroad. This year, more than 28,000 visas were issued to foreign high school students, White said. And it is the reason most exchange programs give for facilitating exchanges.

From NW Services website: "NW Services was founded in 1996 with the belief that increasing cultural understanding and tolerance between the nations of the world is the first step to reaching a true peace within the world."

And PAX, in part, states that its purpose is "to increase mutual respect among the people of the world, to foster an appreciation of our differences and similarities, and to enhance our ability to communicate with one another."

Both White and Kabala said many people have misconceptions about becoming hosts. As a rule, host families do not get paid by the exchange programs. Coordinators serve as independent contractors and get paid per placement, but the families are not compensated - so not to attract folks who may only be interested in the money.

Hosts undergo a criminal background check and must demonstrate they are able to support their own families' needs before bringing in a student. They are responsible for providing a place to sleep and three meals a day, plus transportation to and from school and activities. (Students are not allowed to drive.) Other than that, students bring their own money to pay for personal items, extra-curricular activity and sports fees, and entertainment such as going to the movies. They also carry health insurance.

The students also pay a fee based on the economy of their home country - between $6,000 and $20,000, White said.

Lori Morris, 51, of Bridgeport looks forward to hosting her first two teenagers through NW Services in a few days. She discovered the joy of hosting when two Chinese students at West Liberty University stayed with her during Christmas break last year.

"They were very sweet girls. They actually made us a real authentic Chinese meal, and it was not like our American Chinese," Morris said. Soon, she'll have two more girls, Sofia from Denmark and Martina from Italy. As a baby boomer who has already raised her children, she feels she is well qualified to host, and she is looking forward to going to football games and other high school activities again.

Morris's daughter, Ashly Orzolek of Bridgeport, works as a coordinator under White and serves as her mother's placement coordinator. Back in high school, Orzolek befriended one of White's exchange students from Brazil, Juliana, and has remained close with her. Juliana even came back to attend Ashly's wedding.

She confirmed what her mother said about hosting at her age.

"Baby boomers and empty-nesters make great candidates to be a host family," Orzolek noted. "They have been through the teenage years and know what to expect from a teenager. It often comes more easily and with fewer surprises to them."

White said the average age of her host families is 60-62. There is no "perfect" demographic, however. Younger couples with or without children, single parents, older couples ... What exchange programs look for in hosts is that they have open minds and hearts.

"You have to be big-hearted," Kabala said. "You just gotta love kids."

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