Thursday, November 15, 2012

Growing an International Family Through Exchange

At a reunion with my host family October 2012
Sometimes I'm not sure how to answer simple questions like "How many children do you have?" or "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

Because in addition to my four biological children, and my two biological brothers and four step siblings, I have this large, extended, but closely-knit international family that won't fit on your average family tree and that many people have a hard time comprehending. This is my YFU family: Youth For Understanding.

With YFU, I have two exchange brothers in different countries (one where I lived as an exchange student in Germany, and one from Sweden who lived with my family in New York when I was a teen.) And then there are all my "daughters."  These are the girls we hosted while we lived in Maryland. There are six whom we remain very close to, and a couple others we loved for a time, but for various reasons have not stayed in touch with.

Twenty-five years ago I won a scholarship to spend a year going to high school and living with a host family in Germany. I could not, at that time, begin to comprehend how it would impact everything about the rest of my life. This is when the seeds were planted and my international family began to take root; where the rest of my life and family sprouted.

During my exchange year I lived on a small farm, in a very small village on the Baltic Sea in Schleswig-Holstein. When I arrived, I did not speak a single word of German. The language wasn't offered at my high school; I had only learned French. (I had wanted to go to France, but there were no scholarships there and my parents could not afford to send me on an exchange year. Desperate to travel, see the world, and meet new people, I grabbed the only chance I could get and applied for the Congress-Bundestag scholarship to Germany; close enough, right?).

My host brother spoke a fair bit of English, but honestly, we didn't get along too well at first. I was not what he had in mind when he asked his parents to host (the exchange organization didn't have any boys needing placement; so they got a girl - to my host mother's delight and my brother's chagrin). My host father spoke a bit of English, but worked 15 hour days on the farm. I spent most of my time outside of school helping my host mom in the house or garden. She did not speak a word of English. We both got very good at charades!

I am very grateful to my wonderful volunteer host family for taking me in. Despite not having much to spare economically, they were generous with everything they had, especially their patience and love. They taught me so much about their culture and language and helped me learn a lot about myself. We remain close today, and my host brother and I have built a strong bond.

Tree Branches
The amazing experience I had with Youth For Understanding inspired me to stay involved with the organization and share the love and learning with other young people. Initially, upon my return to the States, I got involved as an area representative. I worked to find host families for international students coming to the US, then mentored the students and families through their year together, lead cultural orientation sessions, and organized various outings and events in the community. I've now mentored about 50 students, some of whom I grew very close to and continue to stay in touch and visit with.

Daughter Stefanie (Denmark 2001-02)
After I was married, had a house and children of my own, we started hosting. This is when our family really began to bloom. My children grew up with older exchange siblings from around the world.

One great benefit of always having an exchange student in the house is that we placed a high value on doing things together as a family - going on day trips and establishing traditions to share with all of our children. When faced with the choice between doing yard work on a beautiful Saturday or taking the exchange student and our kids river rafting and for ice cream in historic Harper's Ferry, WV - well, maybe our garden was in bad shape, but our kids had amazing memories and learned a lot about the history of the area where we lived near Washington DC and Baltimore.

Every holiday was celebrated with enthusiasm as a chance to show off American customs to each new exchange student. Each year, we'd drag our students off to a tree farm to cut down the Christmas tree. We would take haunted hay rides at Halloween and carve pumpkins, color and hide Easter eggs in the Spring. The list goes on. Our exchange students brought endless adventures to our lives and helped us live fully and learn about ourselves, as well as about their cultures. Christmas cookie baking marathons included new recipes each year, brought to us by our exchange daughters from around the world. And my kids learned to say "please" and "thank you" in the languages of the kids we hosted each year.

As my children reached their teens, it's no surprise they wanted to have their own exchange experiences. My oldest daughter won a summer exchange scholarship to Finland when she was only 14. (One year after she spent the summer in Sweden with my host brother's family!). Marissa had a fantastic host family as well, and we were very glad that her host sister could then visit us the following June. And last summer my son was invited to visit them (they also had a boy his age). We hope we will get the entire family here to visit us in Germany soon!

Butterfly Garden
Daughter Katja (Switzerland 2002-03)
There's been a bit of cross-pollination from all these exchange experiences, in vastly different ways. I could tell a million stories. Several of our exchange daughters have met each other (during visits after their initial year) and become "international sisters." We've developed close ties with some of the natural families of the girls we've hosted. One year, on a trip to my husband's family in Hamburg, Alice (arrival student in 2000 from Munich) came up to visit us and brought her sisters. Another year, our Italian daughter (Tamara, 2005-06) also met us in Hamburg, with her parents and brother. And we've become so close with the family of our daughter, Janna (Germany 2004-05) that they took us all in when we first moved to Germany over a year ago. For two months they helped us find a place to live, look for schools for our kids, get the new house painted, buy appliances, figure out insurance, etc. There are no words for the generosity they bestowed on us - they were a life line!

My Global Family
So how many children do I have? ....
I guess I have a heart full :)

Here are a few pics of my global family.... I love them all!!!!

With daughter Janna (Germany 2004-05) in Canada in 2006

With daughter Tamara (Italy 2005-06) during a visit in 2008

With daughter Viki before Prom (Germany 2006-07)

With daughter Inessa (Germany 2007-08)

With daughter Grethe-Marie (Norway 2008-09)

Tamara and her boyfriend visit while we hosted daughter Edith (Finland 2009)

Janna and her boyfriend visiting in Summer 2010

International Sisters with Tamara and Alice (Germany 2000) in Munich 2012


  1. Really enjoyed this post about building and maintaining international bonds. You and your family are a walking billboard for international exchange programs!

    1. Thanks, Linda! We feel so lucky to have such an amazing international family