ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
If you’ve ever thought about hosting an exchange student in your home, talk to Carol Duerksen and Maynard Knepp of rural Hillsboro-they’ll get you hooked.
“Maynard and I started hosting 16 years ago,” said Duerksen.
“One of our youth-group members went to Germany, and he shared how great an experience it was,” Knepp said.
“Maynard wanted to do this about the time we were remodeling this house,” Duerksen said. “We had an extra room, so I said I would do it one year.
“We had a boy from Sweden. I thought that was it, but then they sent us a profile of a Swedish girl who loved horseback riding. We have horses but we don’t have time to ride them. So she came, and after that we didn’t quit. We hosted 14 kids in 16 years.”
In addition to being a host family, Duerksen and Knepp became exchange program coordinators and are now involved in placing students in homes throughout the area.
Duerksen said organizations in other countries recruit students for exchange programs and then contract with organizations in the United States to place the students.
They work with an organization called ERDT/SHARE! ERDT stands for Educational Resource Development Trust.
Their work as EPCs is on top of an already busy schedule. Duerksen is a free-lance writer and part-time director of youth ministries. Knepp works full time as a tree-care specialist. The couple live on a 120-acre farm southwest of Hillsboro called Willow Spring Downs.
“We like it because it keeps us involved in the school and with young people,” said Knepp.
As EPCs, their role is to make sure the exchange program is a quality experience for everyone involved. They provide orientation for families and students, monitor student progress, resolve conflicts and provide continuing support for families, students and schools.
“If the students are good, they sell the program,” Duerksen said. “But any program is only as good as the people who take care of it. We believe we take good care of the kids and the families.”
Knepp said when the students arrive, they are educated about the expectations here.
“These are kids who come from completely different environments and values,” he said. “It gives the program a bad reputation if they are not disciplined and don’t follow the rules and values of the community.”
Duerksen said they have several meetings with the students and families.
“The second weekend in September, we bring together all the students from the state of Kansas for a weekend retreat,” she said. “We spend 24 hours together.
“It’s a fun time, but we also address what it means to be a successful student-everything from making friends to getting along with your host family.
“We go through it all until the kids are sick of hearing it,” she said. “And then we reinforce it all year. Every month we’re in touch with families, kids and schools.”
That constant contact helps them identify “challenges,” as Duerksen calls them.
One student hated American food. Another didn’t get along with her American siblings.
“Every year something comes up that is a new one,” said Duerksen.
When problems do arise, it’s their job to work through the issues with the students and families.
Duerksen said problems are usually due to a lack of communication or the student’s inability to adapt to the new environment.
“Often the problem has to do with expectations,” she said. “The students that are most successful are those that come with no expectations and are flexible. It’s a problem for the kids that expect it to be like it was at home.”
Most of the kids do very well, she said, and are so busy here they don’t even have time to be homesick.
The students who participate in the program are their countries’ best and brightest. The cost to the student and their family usually runs $5,000 to $7,000, although scholarships are available to students from certain countries, said Duerksen.
“The family of the student trusts the organization to find a good match,” she said.
The selection process begins in January when the students’ profiles appear on-line. When they find a student they feel would be a good fit here, Duerksen said they put that student “on hold.” They have three days to place the student before the hold is lifted.
Duerksen said when a family expresses an interest in hosting a student, “we give them an application and find out what kind of student they are interested in.
“If we know they like sports or music or animals or the country, we try to look for that kind of student. You get intuitive after a while.”
Once the match is made, the student and the host family may begin communicating. While many people expect communication to be a barrier, often it is not.
“Most speak English fairly well,” Duerksen said. “It’s a matter of being submerged in it.”
“They learn fast!” added Knepp.
Students stay with their host families for 10 months. They arrive in the United States in August and return to their homeland in early June.
While they’re here, they attend high school and become part of the student body.
Host families come in all shapes and sizes-with children, without children, empty nesters and single parents.
The host family provides room and board for the student. The student is responsible for clothing, books and spending money, Duerksen said. Students have their own medical insurance.
Being a host family is a volunteer role. There is no monetary compensation, but Duerksen and Knepp said the benefits are immeasurable.
“It’s a real education from a cultural standpoint,” Knepp said. “We have friends all over the world, and it brings a whole different light to how the world’s problems should be handled.
“Some of our girls are like our daughters,” he added. “We spent 28 days in Norway, Sweden and Germany, and in that time I bought one meal and I didn’t stay at one motel. It was so great to see the kids in their environment.”
Watching a student learn and grow may be a host family’s greatest reward.
“The potential is every bit a wonderful as with your own kids,” Duerksen said.
But other greatest benefits are for the students themselves.
“The successful student goes home different than when he came,” said Knepp. “What they learn here is very valuable and their families recognize that when they come home.”
Gaining a better grasp of the English language is the most important benefit of the program, he said.
“With the world economy the way it is, having that skill is almost a must in the European countries,” he said. “In Germany, it is almost expected.”
The “people skills” students gain are also invaluable, he said.
“They learn they are a complete stranger,” Knepp said. “I want to know how many adults could go abroad for 10 months and be in a community with all new people.”
Living in a small community makes it a little easier, Duerksen said.
“When they are in the small schools, they are special people,” she said. “Everyone knows who the exchange students are.”
And while students are often initially dismayed to find themselves in the middle of the country instead of on the coast, they soon get over it.
“They are all intrigued with everything American,” Duerksen said. “They want to go to the East or West coasts because that is what they think of as America. When they find out they’re coming to the Midwest, they say ‘Oh my,’ but then they love it. The Midwest people are so friendly, and that makes it work.”
Duerksen said when she and Knepp originally applied to be host parents through another organization years ago, they were denied because “we were here in the middle of nowhere.”
They know now that being in the middle of nowhere is a wonderful treat for many of the kids.
Joyce Wong, an exchange student from Hong Kong who is currently living with them, is a case in point.
“Her world was people and businesses-there were no trees,” said Duerksen. “This was her dream. It is the space and the fresh air.”
“Kids always talk about the sky -it is so blue,” Knepp said.
“And the stars are so bright at night,” added Duerksen.
Another treat for the students is shopping, American style.
Duerksen said jeans and tennis shoes are popular purchases because they are less expensive here. And she’s always interested in the foods the students take back when they leave.
“They don’t have marshmallows in Scandinavia or Ziploc bags in Norway,” she said.
Oreos, cereal and Jell-O are other items taken along home.
The toughest part for everyone comes when it is time for the students to return home.
“When you spend 10 months here, you develop real close relationships,” Knepp said. “When you get on the plane, you don’t know if you will ever see them (the host family) again.”
“Sometimes they become closer to their family here than to their biological family,” Duerksen added.
“We always say if there are tears at the airport, it’s been a good year.”