Submitted by Don Doman
As a Rotary member we’ve hosted two exchange students as well as provided a weekend stop for a visiting boyfriend. Exchange students are a family experience. Rotary members and host families all share our pride of our community and country as do the students with their homes. It’s a great win-win-win opportunity. Generally, students stay about 90 days with a family and move on, but there are breaks when the students get together with other exchange students as well as when other Rotarians invite them to family special events, and weekend trips. Quite often Rotary to needs find more host families outside of Rotary. Rotarians recommend trusted friends with families and others to be part of the experience.
In the late summer of 1995 Peg and I hosted Rotary exchange student Marketta Vanamo for three months. She came in mid-August and we had a great time as we all became close friends. Marketta made a lifelong friend with Leticia “Leti” Amores who was an exchange student hosted by Tacoma Sunrise Rotary. Marketta from Finland and Leti from Agentina became fast friends for their entire stay in the U.S. as well as long after they returned home.
Inviting an exchange student to live with you is a learning experience. The opportunity to learn about another culture is upfront and personal. It started right away. Marketta ate hamburgers and pizza with a knife, a fork. and a napkin, while we made do with our fingers. After she’d been here a few months, she relaxed enough to eat burgers with her hands, but only well wrapped in napkins. She never did feel comfortable eating fries with her fingers.
After Marketta had lived with us a week, she reported that she had dined out more in that week than she had in her entire life. “I’m living my mother’s dream,” she confided.
I was President-Elect of the Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 and so had lots of places to go and things to do before becoming president, so I took Marketta with me to meetings and gatherings. She met many of our members, who helped show her our home town and state. A couple of weeks later a fellow Rotarian took her flying in his small plane from the Tacoma Industrial Airport to another small field on the Olympic Peninsula, where they taxied up to a restaurant and had lunch. When she came back home she remarked that she was now living her father’s dream; he was a FinnAir commercial pilot.
Other Rotarians invited her to family events with them. Marketta attended everything from a Girl Scout skating party, to weekends away and even skiing and Mexican vacations. She worked the Rotary 8 auction and participated in many Rotary projects. She spoke at our meetings at the beginning and at the end of her stay and visited whenever she could.
In the three months she stayed with us, there were many late night discussions about politics, ideals, her favorite movie Dancing with Wolves, and the big headline story of O.J. Simpson’s trial.
Marketta attended Wilson High School while she was here. Leti attended Stadium. Sometimes on weekends they slept over at the each other’s host homes. Our kids where all grown and out on their own, so it was like having children again. One night Peg and I were in our bedroom in the daylight basement. We mistakenly thought we heard a herd of cattle stampeding through the kitchen upstairs. I crept up the basement stairs and peered over the last step to see the girls dancing. Leti was teaching Marketta to tango. I just laughed and they did, too.
Quite often exchange students bond more with their fellow exchange students than they do with students in their exchange schools. We bonded well with both Marketta and Leti. Exchange students love their countries and they bring special gifts to share with their host families and new friends. Marketta presented us with an exquisite crystal bowl from Finland, while Leti gave us her gaucho hat and a carved mate (tea) cup and wooden straw.
We helped Marketta through homesickness. She dearly missed her young niece who was being potty trained. She missed her brand new niece who was born after she left. We loaned her a niece and a granddaughter. Her parents visited here, and it was nice meeting them. She comes from a large and friendly family. Over the years many of our Rotary buddies have visited with Marketta in Espoo, Finland, and she has returned here with her daughter, Charlotta. We’ve stayed close with cards, letters, and Facebook. After a recent terrorist event in Turku where she went to business college, I couldn’t bring myself to check her Facebook page right away. I finally looked and saw that she was okay, so sent her a post. She responded, “Thank you, Don! Even though we were on the way to Espoo to my parents’ home at the time of the attack, I’ve been shocked and sad about this. I do feel like Turku is my hometown now so this touched me deeply.”
Being a Rotary Youth Exchange host family is heartwarming and rewarding. It gives you the feeling that you’re making the world a smaller, more loving place to live. There are obligations, but there is no pay. Just incorporate the student into your life. If you would like to help, you may write for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. We recommend it.