Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Time Keeps On Ticking…

A couple of weeks ago, I added a countdown ticker to the blog to mark the time until we have to put Penny on a bus and wish her farewell.  I was so surprised when the time on the countdown clocked became less than the clock that is counting how long she has been here.  As you’ll see above, she has now been here 6 months and she only has just over 4 months to go.

Before Penny arrived, I became friendly via Facebook and our blogs with a number of other host moms.  These incredible women from all around the country have been a wonderful source of support and insight into raising teenagers (having never done it myself!).  We have even decided to have an AFS host moms camp at some point and meet up!

I was sad that for two of these families, their much hoped for exchange didn’t pan out in the ways they had planned and their “children” have ultimately moved on to live with other families.  It is a reality of the hosting experience that ultimately, for whatever reason (and there are many!), a host match may just not be a good situation for the host family or for the exchange student or both.

I feel in some ways I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is possible an exchange match doesn’t work out.  As I have alluded to, one of the four siblings AFS sent to live in my parents’ home wound up moving out mid-way through her year, just after Christmas, to go live with a different family in town.  It was a challenging time as a family for us to live through.  The student was clearly unhappy and withdrawn from family life.  My parents ultimately decided that they could not tolerate behaviors from her that they would not tolerate from my sister and I, and as they were unhappy and the student was unhappy, she was relocated.  It happens.

There are a lot of feelings that can lead up to a change like that.  In our family, we experienced moments of hope when we all tried to make it work, moments of anger when nothing anyone did seemed to improve the situation, moments of anxiety when we didn’t know how AFS would handle the situation or what people would think of our family as we lived in a very small town and the gossip mill was (and is) in full force. 

Afterwards, there was an immense feeling of relief.  It was over, we could get back to our family’s normal without being sneered at, judged, or looked down upon by this girl, and a sense that if there were problems in the future, they were someone else’s to deal with.  There was still some worry that when she left, she might say negative things about our family that would negatively impact how people viewed us (my father in particular was a well-respected public official), but she was, as far as I know, relatively quiet about her experiences with us and I don’t know much about what she said or did afterwards other than today she continues to live in the United States and is in touch with her second host family.

For our final exchange student with my parents at the helm, we were actually his third placement.  And I would like to address this because even though a student gets bounced around from home to home, it may be that once he or she finds the right spot, it works like magic.  When he first arrived in the US, he was placed with a welcome family.  For anyone who doesn’t know what a welcome family is, they are a family who agrees to host a student for up to 8 weeks upon their arrival until a permanent host family can be found.  So Franc wound up with a host family who had no intention of a long term hosting situation but had room in their hearts and home for a student seeking  a permanent place to call home. 

Once he was placed with a permanent family in Northern New York, it turned out not to be a good fit for him there.  The woman who agreed to host him already had a student living with her, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t a comfortable match for Franc.  So our regional chapter of AFS decided to place Franc in the high school that my sister was attending, and as she was acting student president of the chapter at the time, she was told she’d have to host him until a permanent family in the school district could be found.

She dreaded telling my father the news in particular. He had taken the previous year’s “failed” hosting experience particularly hard and had informed everyone that we were categorically done with hosting any future students.  But that night, my mother and sister had a meeting to go and left Franc and my dad alone and by the time Mom and Judy got home, my father had Franc’s year in America planned out.  And it was one of those magical placements where all the pieces clicked into place and despite typical sibling fights and whatnot, to this day, we are extremely close.

So I’ve seen it work from both sides of the equation—from having a student move out to having a student in need of a home move in, and I can say that it works very positively if done correctly, which on the whole AFS seems to do pretty well.

When we had our initial interview with an AFS rep before hosting Penny, this topic came up, with regards to hosting a student and what if the experience didn’t go well and how we would handle things if it seemed like Penny would need to be moved elsewhere.  There is so much hope in the matching process and in the planning and preparing for a student that you don’t like to think of anything other than the best possible outcome—that being tearful goodbyes at the end of the year, visits to your student in his/her home country, them returning to visit, weddings, births, and the like. 

I can say that our exchange has not happened as we envisioned it.  Are we disappointed?  No way.  In many ways it has been so much better than we’d ever hoped.  I can say without a moment’s hesitation that Penny is a member of our family, 150%.  Barring major meltdown disaster in the next 4 months, that will not change.  I feel confident that if I were the exchange student, I would not do things the same way that she has gone about them, but I think that is true regardless of what you attempt in life—no two people do anything the exact same way.  I have learned a lot from how she has chosen to handle things, however, and I am attempting to model good behaviors for things that I feel she needs a good role model on—things like dealing with hurt feelings, how to effectively communicate with family, goal setting, taking initiative, being adventurous and trying new things (tubing and Polish food are high on her list of new loves!), and being assertive. She has taught me to be more flexible, being accepting of people as they are, being adventurous and trying new things (seriously, I would NEVER in a million years have ridden Space Mountain or eaten Thai food were it not for Penny’s presence in my life), calling people who hurt you “friend” anyway, and not taking everything personally. 

I don’t know what our new normal will look like at the end of June, but regardless, each and every exchange student whose experience I have been part of has indelibly touched my life and I know even for families whose exchange didn’t end as they expected, there were positives and negatives to the situations anyway and we have all learned and grown a lot.  Here’s to a great spring!

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