Are You Okay? What is Expected of our Volunteer Host Families

Often times I encounter people who say that they want to host but are worried that their home isn’t good enough.

What they mean by “not good enough” is a lot of things.

  • It could be that their home is small.
  • It could be that they have young children.
  • It could be that they have no children.
  • It could be that they  don’t travel.
  • It could be that both parents work.
  • It could be that they are busy.
  • It could be that they don’t see themselves as wealthy.

I’ve had these worries too.  We’ve got young kids.  We’re busy all the time.  We’re running to the pool, or gymnastics, or soccer, or the grocery store.  Our house is often messy (not unsanitary messy, but lived in messy).  When I was applying to host an exchange student, I shared these concerns with one of our exchange students and he laughed at me and reminded me that my family has a lot to offer because we are welcoming and because we care.  He reminded me that he, as an exchange student, is also busy and stayed involved with school activities.  He reminded me of my kids’ enthusiasm at getting to know him and how great it was for him to be greeted by that enthusiasm.  What makes us a good family is not that we can provide luxurious trips or a private bathroom (the bathroom is shared and we might be able to figure out a day trip to New York), but it’s who we are that makes us a good family for the right student.

The truth is: High school exchange programs are not luxury travel programs.  They are immersion programs.  If you were traveling to a foreign country (let’s imagine you’re doing Spanish immersion in Mexico) you wouldn’t be disappointed to stay in a humble home with a working family.  You wouldn’t be disappointed because the purpose of the trip is not fancy tours or lofty hotels.  The purpose of immersion is to experience local life and native language.  It is to live as local people live and in the USA this means many different things. There are so many walks of life: the life of a young family, of a retired couple, of a professional adult, of horse lovers, outdoor explorers, home bodies, soccer moms, sports fanatics, art creators… so many others.  Families of all occupations: stay at home parents, engineers, healthcare professionals, HVAC technicians, retail clerks, musicians… the list goes on. There are five bedroom homes with en suite bathrooms and two bedroom homes with a shared bath. They are homes in which a student might share a room with a host brother or sister and homes in which a student might have their own suite. There are both urban apartments and rural homes.  Families are diverse. Each has their own style and there is no one right way.

A prospective host mom recently talked to me about being concerned that an exchange student living with her family wouldn’t get the opportunity to travel frequently as they tended to be home bodies. To this I responded that there are often opportunities through the local high schools for field trips, but also reminded the host mom that the student is already traveling.  Staying with their host family, attending the local high school, being part of the community: THAT is the travel experience that an exchange program provides.

There are some expectations we have of our host families and these are guided by the Department of State policies.

Families must complete a background check.  We endeavor to keep our students safe, happy, and healthy and we also want their natural families to be comfortable knowing that their child is going to a safe environment.  For this reason, it is important that our host families have a clean background check without offenses.

Families must follow the program rules and work in collaboration with us to provide a good experience for the student. Families must be financially independent and able to provide a student’s meals and a bed and include the student in family activities.  However, students do come with their own spending money and pay for their own clothes, activities, souvenirs, school materials, and travel expenses.  We want our families to want to provide the opportunity of experiencing American life to their teenage exchange student and to enjoy having their exchange student join in as a member of the family.

I went to a birthday party last night for one of our host dads.  At the party I got to say goodbye to the student their family hosted before she left their home to travel in the USA with her natural father before returning to her country.  As the host mom and I watched fireworks she told me that she’d been working on getting some of her friends to host, commenting, “This has been such an awesome experience and I don’t think people know, I don’t think they can know just how amazing it is until they do it.”

This resonated with me because I believe that cultural exchange is where it’s at.  Heightening our understanding of our connection with others is what it’s all about and sometimes we do that over a game of checkers, or a shared meal, or with a welcome sign.

If you are questioning if your home is good enough, and if you would like to share your American world with a youth from another part of the global world, I hope you’ll put your doubts aside and contact us.

Share your doubts if you’d like and it’s likely we’ll tell you we’re glad you reached out and yes, you’re okay.

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