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The Pacific Intercultural Exchange

by Patty Grasty

It’s a Boy!
“Congratulations! It’s a boy!” Thus emblazoned was the card that 73-year-old Pat Jones received, indicating she would soon be welcoming a bouncing teenage boy from Lebanon. Pat had applied to become a host parent through Pacific Intercultural Exchange (PIE), a nonprofit program that brings international high school students to the United States for a year of academic and cultural exchange. An empty nester for 20 years, Pat was living a life of volunteer work, travel, and outings with friends. She became involved with PIE when her daughter took on the role of regional manager for her home state of Kentucky, plus Ohio and Indiana, and recruited her to be the local area representative. Pat discovered that she enjoyed finding qualified host families, being the school liaison, and mentoring students once they arrived in the U.S. This year, however, would be different.

Pat decided to become an “arrival family,” meaning she would welcome a student (in this case, Naser) for four to six weeks, until he had a chance to start school and get acclimated. Then a "permanent family" would be found for him for the remainder of his exchange. However, it quickly became apparent to Pat that she was meant to be Naser’s permanent family.

Naser arrived in August never having been away from home. Pat has traveled the world and was at ease with many different cultures. She helped Naser enroll at the local high school and purchase his school supplies and other necessities with his allowance check, and began to integrate him into her life. Before long, Naser was doing chores, playing with Pat’s cats, getting to know the area, and starting to make friends. Soon though, Naser was bored. BORED. What to do? Pat signed him up with a local basketball league. Naser had never really played basketball before and had to learn the rules, get into condition for the games, and become part of a team. In short order, he was no longer bored!

"Fred and Ethel"
Then in October things changed again. Pat represented Suhye, a sweet young lady from South Korea, for the program. Suhye’s host family was just not a good match for her, and although she was doing her best to make it work, everyone was unhappy.

Suhye and Naser.
Pat took Suhye into her home, just for a few weeks, until a new permanent family could be found. You guessed it—Pat quickly became the proud host mom of a bouncing teenage girl!

Naser and Suhye were promptly dubbed “Fred and Ethel” and began, together with Pat, the task of becoming a family. They shared cooking and cleaning responsibilities, talked and laughed about their day, cried on Pat’s shoulder when they were homesick or disappointed about something, and built memories that will last a lifetime. They also had the chance to share their culture with Pat through small souvenir gifts they brought, native dishes they cooked, and long conversations about how things are different in their country. As Pat says, “What better way to learn about another country, another culture, another religion than from someone so eager to share? And I get to show off my country and see it through their eyes. Simple things like sharing my favorite meal with them became so meaningful.”

Naser is a Druze Muslim; Pat is a Roman Catholic. She helped him observe Ramadan and he trotted happily to Mass with her, enjoying the sense of community and friendship he found there. Suhye is also Catholic, whereas her family is primarily Buddhist. She follows some practices of both, and Pat was able to learn about that as well.

Pat encountered few difficulties as a host parent, though she was assigned a local area representative to help her along the way. The local rep checked in with her and with each of the kids once a month and planned activities for the kids to get together with other exchange students in the area. Students have their own spending money and health insurance, so Pat incurred little personal expense other than, of course, feeding two teenagers! “Hosting a student may not be something many empty nesters have ever considered,” she says. “The nice thing is, I now have time to spend with them and we have the freedom to go places together.”

Time Flies
As the months flew by, Pat was able to share holidays with Naser and Suhye, bringing them along to visit her family in Ohio. Each contributed a favorite food for Thanksgiving and, in fact, Pat’s grandson ate more Lebanese tabouleh and Korean bulgogi than he did turkey! Pat attended their concerts and special events at school and sat down with their teachers on conference night, hearing about their progress and glowing with pride at the stories of how they were excellent role models both academically and personally. Christmas gifts were exchanged and the students spent much time planning and shopping to find just the right present for “Grammy.” Soon it was Easter, and then all too quickly it was time for Naser and Suhye to return home.

“I feel I learned so much from these students and gained new ‘grandchildren’ in the process,” Pat explains. “In fact, I still keep in touch not only with them but also with the students I have encountered as an area rep.” The exchange doesn’t end when the students return home. Suhye calls faithfully at least once a month and shares what is happening currently in her life.

Pat volunteering with her third exchange student, Saleh.
Naser generously welcomed Pat’s daughter to Lebanon for a weeklong visit to his region, and she returned with many, many gifts for the woman who took such good care of him during his exchange year.

This past year, Pat welcomed Saleh from Yemen, her third exchange “grandchild,” and had another wonderful year learning and sharing and guiding. Often people ask her how she keeps up with the students, but the question should be the opposite: How do they keep up with her? Pat has a rich, full life and loves to attend local sporting events and festivals, visit local restaurants, and travel to visit her daughter in Ohio and son in Arkansas. Her students often join her for these activities, though as teenagers they are also capable of staying home while she’s away for the evening. As Pat tells it, “People would say, ‘Host an exchange student? You must be out of your mind!’ They expressed concerns about how I would entertain them, but they are really here to be part of the family. As an empty nester, you can choose to surround yourself with old memories or you can make new and lasting ones. You laugh with them, you cry with them, but most of all you share.”

How to Host
Is it time to share your heart and your home with a child once again? Becoming a volunteer host family could be the best decision you make as an empty nester. If you apply, a local area rep will visit you to see your home and answer any questions you might have. After a criminal background and references check are completed, the host is matched with a student who shares similar interests. Students come from virtually every part of the world: Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East. They are 15–18 years old and speak English. They have their own spending money and health insurance. Hosts provide a room, meals, and loving support. It is possible to host two students at the same time, and in fact many empty nesters do just that, both to learn about two different cultures and to have companionship for the students. Approximately 20% of host families are empty-nesting singles or couples.

Pacific Intercultural Exchange is a nonprofit program that has been placing exchange students across the country for more than 30 years. PIE welcomes all kinds of host families and looks forward to matching you with the right student. For more information about becoming a host parent like Pat, please visit our website or call toll free 1-888-743-8721. A local area representative can speak with you personally to answer any questions you may have about hosting or becoming a mentor.

Patty Grasty (bottom center in photo), of Liberty Township, Ohio, is a regional manager for Pacific Intercultural Exchange and currently has a very full nest, with three children still at home and various exchange students who stay for a year, a month, or a few days. After working in retail and in professional theater, Patty became involved with the nonprofit as a way to combine her love of other cultures with her desire to make a difference in the world. Mentoring exchange students and traveling to visit them in their home countries are among her favorite things to do.

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