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Exchange program seeking families

Submitted by on 1, December 6, 2010 – 12:03 amNo Comment

Julia Park Tracey had a spare room in her house, and she felt a little guilty about not using it. So when she heard about an opportunity to host a foreign exchange student, she decided to put the room – and her years of hosting local teens at her home – to good use.

What she got in return was the start of a relationship with the student and her family that will extend beyond the student’s four-month stay with Park Tracey and her family, plus a fresh outlook on things many people often take for granted.

“It’s kind of a gift that dropped in our lap,” Park Tracey said.

Alameda has a robust student exchange program that sees a dozen or more students each semester, and they’re looking for families willing to host a student for either a few months or an entire school year. The program pays a monthly stipend to cover food and other expenses. Students can come for a few months or an entire school year.

The program’s local organizer, Sylvia Kahn, says it offers a good opportunity to open your home to another culture – and to form lifelong relationships with families on the other side of the world. She’s now looking for families to host students who hope to come in January.

Kahn said she’s hosted a half-dozen teens as exchange students over the last several years, including three students from one family with whom her family has traded visits. And she said her children are enjoying learning about the customs of the students who come to stay with them.

“Our kids’ sense of the world expands,” Kahn said. She said her 6-year-old daughter and the student now staying with her family, Wiebke von Bremen, are practicing a song to perform together on Christmas; von Bremen’s family also sent a card detailing Christmas festivities in Germany, along with a chocolate bar.

Von Bremen, 16, said she wanted to come to the United States on exchange after a cousin told her about a similar trip she had taken to Canada. Highlights so far have included a part in Encinal High School’s recent production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and participation on the school’s soccer and cross country teams.

She wards of homesickness by communicating with her family every day via the online videoconferencing tool Skype. But she said she’s enjoyed her time with the Kahns.

“I love my host family,” she said, giggling.

Park Tracey is getting set to tour her student’s parents around the Bay Area when they come to visit, and the German student they’re hosting now is planning to come back over the summer. Park Tracey’s family has been invited to go to Germany. And she’s preparing for another student in January.

Park Tracey said her family hasn’t done much for the holidays in recent years. But with someone new in the house, they’re celebrating with a renewed vigor, even incorporating some of their student’s German holiday traditions. Familiar landmarks, too, like the Golden Gate Bridge, are also taking on a new sheen with someone new to share them with, she said.

“It’s a new sense of discovery and wonder,” she said.

Anyone interested in hosting a student can contact Sylvia Kahn at slykahn@aol.com. Interested host families, who can host up to two students at a time, must fill out an application and provide photos of their home and the room they’d provide to a visiting student along with character references. Families will also be subject to an interview and a background check. More information on the program that sends the students is available online.

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