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Stories From The Halander Family

Our house had been full of people, languages, laughter and food!

"As with a lot of people on the autism spectrum, Zack doesn’t have a lot of friends, certainly no close friends. Except his brothers. Habib (from Mexico) and Gabe (from Italy) are his best friends ."- Kristie (host mom)

When I was in 6th grade, a foreign exchange student gave a presentation at an all school assembly. Immediately I knew I wanted to do that! Why? I have no idea. I’ve never been an outgoing, adventurous, try something new person. Never. My parents laughed and dismissed the thought, but I didn’t. My sophomore year of high school, my German teacher gave me an application for Congress-Bundestag. I applied and a few months later was on my way to Germany. Things were not quite the fairy tale I had envisioned, however. With only 2 years of high school German, needless to say, I wasn’t fluent. I could barely say my name. I was placed with a family with 6 kids, ages 1 – 12, in a very, very small town. The oldest child, a boy, didn’t want to have anything to do with me. The 10 year old girl, wanted to be my best friend. I didn’t understand anything at school….and even worried about getting there and home with the public transportation. I was miserable. There were no LC’s, so I felt isolated and alone. Of course, now I understand that I was experiencing culture shock, language fatigue and homesickness, but at the time, I just thought it was my host family. I know my host family was hurt when I moved to a new family. They really wanted to host and they tried everything they could. As an adult, I can see the issues were largely my own.

I moved families in November and it did make a difference…but then we all know that things calm down around then. My language skills greatly improved, there was an exchange student from Indonesia in my same town/school who I connected with, and I felt connected to my host family. Did I mention that I could finally actually communicate with people?

One of the neat things about my exchange year is it was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was able to visit Eastern Germany for a short term exchange, and my German school did a 2 week exchange in Poland, as well.

It is so true that an exchange experience changes lives. In addition to confidence and maturity, it gave me career goals and direction in life.  I planned to use my language skills in business, and worked for a German company in the US for a while.

I did not anticipate actually working for an exchange organization. 3 years ago, a total stranger messaged me and asked if I wanted to be a Local Coordinator with ETC.  Just because I lived in Manassas. I don’t think that stranger knew how much that simple question would change the lives of my family. I eagerly took the job, because little did that stranger know that 1. I was looking for a job that would allow me to work from home and continue homeschooling my kids and 2. I had been an exchange student myself many (many) years ago. It seemed like a perfect fit!

I immediately loved working with international students and host families, and my coworkers were amazing. I had been out of the professional workforce for a few years, and didn’t even realize how much I missed it!

ETC Students

Our first hosting experience, however, didn’t go so well. In fact, I had no idea it could go so wrong!  It made me wonder why on earth normal people would invite a complete stranger, a teen-ager, from another country to not only live with them, but actually invite them to be part of their family. I mean, our student was here from Germany (but really was Armenian heritage) and was on probation week 3. And again around week 6 or 7. And final probation after he flooded our house. We survived until he was sent home from the New York trip. Yes, I mailed all his stuff home because he didn’t even get to come back to our house to pack.

And then I thought maybe our family isn’t normal and we shouldn’t host? I mean, our family is far from perfect, we do have some extra challenges and lead busy lives…maybe our family just isn’t the right family to host. I didn’t have a lot of time to ponder what went wrong before we had a girl from Spain living with us while we searched for a new host family. Lourdes was only with us a few weeks, but she eagerly went camping for Spring Break, ate carrots and ranch dip by the gallon, did merit badges with my son, Zack, and allowed my daughter Sami to go prom dress shopping with her. When Lourdes moved to her new host family, she boosted our spirits when she told us how much she enjoyed her time with us and she encouraged us to host another student.

A few months later, my Field Manager Cassie saw an application for a girl from Japan that might fit our family. I had never thought about hosting from Japan. I had lived and traveled throughout Europe, that’s what I was comfortable with. Japan seemed so….so….foreign?? After hours of discussion and analyzing every sentence in the application, we agreed to give it a try. From the very first email communication, we knew we had made the right decision. She called me mom from the first email. We loved Mifumi before she ever arrived. The day after Mifumi arrived, we decided to take a second student, just temporarily, because the deadline to find host families was just days away. Four days later, Habib arrived from Mexico. I am thankful that God saw the big picture in placing two students in our family, because quite honestly, I never would’ve chosen that on my own. I thought it would be too much work and cost too much (teen-agers can eat!). Nor would I have chosen Habib for our family based on his application. But the blessings of having 4 kids far outweighed the work and grocery bill! After just 2 weeks in our family, we knew Habib would also be with us for the year. After such a rough first experience, here we were Halander family of 6….and loving it!

At the end of their exchange experience, both Mifumi and Habib’s family came to visit. How special to have Japanese and Mexican family here at the same time! We toured DC, ate authentic Japanese and Mexican food, shared a Thanksgiving dinner, watched Mifumi and Sami dance in their recital, and had a campfire with smores and sparklers for an early July 4th celebration. Saying good-bye was tough. Tougher than I ever expected. We were going to miss not only our international kids, but their families, as well. How amazing it is to feel like family after just a few short days together. Our house had been full of people, languages, laughter and food! It was extremely empty after they left….but not for long!!!

While Habib and Mifumi were still living with us….we saw Gabrielle’s application. (The first thing we asked him is if it was ok to give him an American nickname, because we couldn’t pronounce his Italian name!) Gabe’s application seemed to match our family. We were only going to host one student…but in May, we saw Leona’s application and immediately knew she would be a Halander, too! Call us crazy (many have!) but 2 worked so well the first time, we decided to do it again.

Six weeks after Mifumi and Habib returned to their home countries, Gabe and Leona arrived. They settled in so quickly to life in our family…it’s almost like they knew how to do it. (I later found out that my 4 international kids are all friends on what’s app and had been communicating for months!) This year, I was a band parent for the first time, as Leona plays the flute. Gabe is involved in BJJ and Boy Scouts. Our family feels complete again with 4 teen-agers! Actually, for 1 week in December, we had 5 teenagers, as Habib came back to visit. And we facetimed with Mifumi while decorating gingerbread houses, so for a few hours all 6 were together!

Host Family

These past 2 years, we have shared special family times. I love watching the four play board games or ride bikes together. I love hearing them laugh and even tease each other. They are siblings at heart.

Even before covid, Gabe and Leona experienced real life in our family – the good, the bad and the ugly. We had some real trials. The struggles with autism and our son led to a short term hospitalization to take him off medications. Gabe was the only visitor Zack wanted, besides my husband and I. Then in January, Zack went to stay at a residential facility 3 hours away for extra therapy and assistance.  Someone asked me why we were still hosting “extra kids” with everything going on. Our “extra kids” are such a blessing….not a burden.

I was so thankful for Leona’s heart. My daughter Sami has been waiting to be old enough to share a bedroom with a sister. Before Leona arrived, I messaged her to let her know that Sami had rearranged her bedroom to allow for 2 beds and was hoping Leona might want to share. I assured Leona that she had her own room available, but maybe she’d want to do a sleepover occasionally on a weekend? Leona slept every night in Sami’s room. I was so thankful for Leona being a true big sister to Sami this year through all the challenges. She was the big sister that Sami really needed.

And Gabe was also amazing through everything. Even when I was so frustrated with my son’s behavior, Gabe could overlook it and still be friends with Zack. Gabe was such a calming influence on Zack. My husband was in the hospital when I had to take Zack to the facility. Zackary asked Gabe to go with us. I introduced Gabe as my Italian son. The person filling out the forms said he wasn’t family and wouldn’t be allowed to visit Zack. Zack got mad and quickly informed the person that Gabe IS his BROTHER. Zack then told the person that he had a brother in Mexico, a sister in Japan, and a sister from Germany at home. Needless to say, ALL of my kids could visit Zack, because they are listed as immediate family. Zack was staying 3 hours away. Every weekend, the whole family drove down to visit Zack. Gabe and Leona didn’t miss a single visit, even though we told them they could make plans with their friends instead of all that driving. But they were family, and they weren’t going to miss seeing Zack.

ETC Student

As with a lot of people on the autism spectrum, Zack doesn’t have a lot of friends, certainly no close friends. Except his brothers  Habib and Gabe are his best friends. Zack is home, he’s doing great. And both Gabe and Habib schedule time with him every week to play video games online. Zack messages with them and talks to them regularly. I am so thankful for the relationships Zack has been able to form with them. He doesn’t have that with any other boys his age. With their influence, Zack has also tried new foods, learned a lot of new things and is even wanting to try travelling to another country. Mexico isn’t that far, and we can do it for a long weekend, so as soon as we’re able, Zack wants to visit Habib. If it’s too hard, and we have to just stay home, Habib will understand.

In addition to the students we’ve personally hosted, I’ve had the opportunity to be a local coordinator to other students and host families. I know what it takes to host a student and appreciate host families so much! I am thankful for the friendships that develop as we host together. I’m thankful for the students I’ve gotten to know in the process and how much I’ve learned through them.

That’s my ETC hosting story. The highlights. There’s so much more I could tell you, but I was trying to be brief! It has blessed my life, and the life of my family. Now I need to go call my kids! Good thing we have a zoom call this weekend with all 6 kids together!

 

 

– Kristie H. (host mom)

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