Every year hundreds of foreign exchange students fill the empty nests of veteran parents. Is the experience mutually satisfying?
Imagine hosting 49 exchange students!
That’s what Donna and her husband, Butch, did. Not all at once, of course. They started in 1986 after the last of their three sons flew the coop. The nest needed to be filled, so they started inviting two exchange students at a time—year after year.
Why do they do it?
“I come from a large family and have three sons who are grown,” Donna explains. “Two have moved a long distance away, but all three worry about us being lonesome or bored when we do not have exchange students. When we have students we stay active with them in school and sports plus taking them places and sharing our culture.”
But what about the students? Do they get bored living in an empty nest? Let’s let exchange students and host parents speak for themselves. But reader beware: these are not aberrations from the norm. Year after year, teenagers from all over the world move in with empty nesters, form lifelong bonds and enjoy the year of their life in the USA.
Empty Nesters: Donna’s Story
“Leticia 'leelee' from Brazil. She is our babydoll. We miss her so much. She never had a Dad so she adores Butch. We took her to Vegas and the Grand Canyon.”
Donna and Butch really do love hosting exchange students. “It helps us to feel needed and useful. The big plus to being an empty nester family is we have plenty of time to spend on helping students and there is no sibling rivalry for them. When they need teen companionship we have our grandsons that will be here occasionally for them.”
Donna and Butch have really enjoyed expanding their family through hosting. “Since we have all sons we have really enjoyed hosting girls which gives us our ‘daughters’. My grandchildren are also all boys so my daughter-in-law also enjoys going prom dress shopping with my ‘daughters’ and me. My favorite was when Paula from Spain and Laerke from Denmark were here. We had almost given up finding ‘the dress’ for Paula. However my daughter-in-law helped find her the perfect dress!” And the highlight? “My very favorite memory was the year Ingrid from Norway got voted Prom Queen!”
Donna and Butch have hosted plenty of boys too. “Han is South Korean. When he left he gave me a gift. It is a snow globe with a beautiful pink heart inside because he said it reminded him of my big heart.” This student shared their home with an Italian girl who stayed for just a semester and then a German student who joined the family for the rest of the year.
What makes hosting so fun? Sharing the little things, everyday American culture and family traditions. “I love to share Thanksgiving Dinner and how I make it with the students. We basically have the same meal a month later at Christmas so the students help me. I allow them to learn how to make my peanut butter fudge which is a big hit!”
Donna stays in touch with almost every student at least once a year—if not more. And number 50 is on the way: “Her name is Meg and she lives in Rome.”
Empty Nester: Margaret’s Story
“I hosted a German girl because I always wanted to host but my husband did not want to. After he died, that is when I got my German girl.”
Vera from Germany was a dream come true for Margaret. She filled the nest with a long-awaited host daughter, and brought it to life. Suddenly there were so many things to do: getting old-fashioned pictures taken together with her new daughter, shopping together for homecoming, prom or just for fun—and being the “mom on sports night”.
Then there were the birthdays and holidays. “I always try to celebrate with cake, cookies, gifts or whatever is appropriate,” says host mom. They went sightseeing in Chicago, visited the monumental Mall of America and the amazing Wisconsin Dells. But the little things were just as fun: fixing meals together and watching favorite shows on TV.
And the relationship flourished. Today, Margaret has family on two sides of the world. She and Vera have been flying back and forth between Germany and the USA ever since. And that includes a trip to Vera’s wedding, when the entire family—Margaret’s four adult children and their spouses—all travelled together for the big event. Today Margaret is the proud grandmother of Edda, Vera’s first child.
“My advice would be to do it. It makes you young again,” says Margaret, who also places exchange students with other families. “I have a single lady that has hosted for about 10 years for me and she will be 80. She takes the students to Florida each year and all other places of interest in the area and loves each student, goes to their games if they're in sports, to their concerts and she is just interested in them. She will have great memories, and the students remember her on holidays.”
Exchange Student: Giulia’s story
Giulia from Italy loved her empty nester host parents. She had an amazing year in Oregon, where she landed in a lovely empty nest with a dynamic pair of parents who awaited her with... their travel bug. “We travelled a lot together. We went to Los Angeles, Washington DC, Virginia Beach, Maryland, North Carolina and Alaska."
But travelling was just the icing on the cake. Everyday life with this empty nester family was full of fun. "We watched movies together; we played games sometimes; we used to go to the church together every Sunday, and to the beach in Bandon. I was in the Bible club and in the Key Club. I did sports after school. I went to see the football and basketball games on Fridays. I made a lot of friends at school and I hung out with some of them during the weekend. I also played a lot with my host parents’ grandkids."
What did she like about this family? "I liked that they know how to do a lot of things. My host mom was very good cooking and sewing, host dad is good at building things and using the bow. I liked that their grandkids always had so much energy and always wanted to play. I liked that they all talked a lot and they all were willing to explain me the meaning of a word when I didn’t know it. I loved that the whole family always made me feel part of it and how they were kind to me, for example my host parents’ daughter-in-law was very good at painting nails and I loved when she did my nails."
Giulia has so many good memories of her year in Oregon. “I loved living the ‘American life’: going to the dance, to the games, to try American food and sports, and celebrate their festivities (like Thanksgiving). I loved to visit new places in Oregon with my host family, my friends and the other exchange students and to go all those places in the USA.”
What about her empty nester host parents? “They know how to interact with teenagers because they have kids. But, at the same time, not having those kids at home anymore, they also have more time to do things (for example to travel).”
Exchange Student: Beatriz’s story
Beatriz from Brazil also adores her empty nesters. “They were calm and loved to tell stories about their lives, they always had things to say, advice to give. Living with them was incredible because I felt very welcomed, and the fact of being an ‘empty nest’ brought me very close to them and made us create a stronger bond.” She especially appreciated their ability to understand her and always be willing to listen to her and give her advice. “I felt very good about them,” she recalls.
Beatriz enjoyed the little, everyday interactions with her host parents. “They had more time to talk to me, consequently helping me with my English. They had more time for me than I believe that another younger family would have had.”
What will she remember 20 years from now? “The feeling of being part of another family. The good feeling of sitting in the hammock in front of the house (we lived in the countryside) ,and having time to think about everything. I will always remember our conversations at the dinner table and finishing eating in time to watch ‘The Voice’ (one of the things that I miss so much).”
And her advice for other exchange students placed with veteran parents? “Be willing to try to be closer to them because after all, they adopted an exchange student to have extra company, to be able to talk and share experiences. So a good piece of advice is to be willing to do your best to be open (vs. closed), and not to be a distant person.”
Exchange Student: Brooke’s Story
Brooke from Australia was thrilled with her empty nesters: “I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect family! Despite being older than the typical host family, Keith and Debbie were wild, loud and young at heart. We had weekly routines of watching our favorite shows, looking after the horses in the winter, and spending time with the rest of the family. It felt natural from day one and not once did I ever feel out of place…I loved how family-oriented they were. It really was a loving environment where we could still act like fools and it would be encouraged. They made me feel special every single day I was there.”
Brooke was really tuned into the empty nest idea right from the start. “The idea of ‘older’ parents hosting makes sense to me. Empty Nester Syndrome is a real thing! It doesn’t surprise me that without their own children to run around after, they would look for something else to keep busy. And, older parents have time for you. They listen; they’re a shoulder to cry on and have years’ worth of advice to give.”
What’s her advice for future exchange students who land in empty nests? “Take it as it comes—you may feel like you’ll miss out on an experience of having ‘host brothers and sisters’ but I was so busy all the time doing cheer, spending time with my parents and making memories that I didn't have time for anyone else except myself! Think of it this way, you don’t have to fight for the love! You get ALL the attention.”
And what was her main takeaway? “I thought I went to America to become more independent. I discovered that I already was extremely independent for my age and didn’t struggle with being away from home or feeling like I was missing out. I learnt from them what I look for in a relationship. Keith always said I need to find a prince who will treat me like a princess. I think my host dad is scarier to introduce boys to than my real dad!”
Exchange Student: Luc’s Story
Luc from Germany has only glowing reports of his host family. “My host family was probably the best there was. I know you hear that a lot. They were very generous and kind. They also took a lot of time for us and tried to do as much as they could. They took another student from Spain, who over the time became just like a brother for me. Our host parents often tried to imagine how we felt in the situation being away from our families and ensured that we felt like being part of the family. They tried to fulfill every wish we had, our host father who doesn't work as much anymore, always had time to take us somewhere after school.”
And like Brooke, Luc was also tuned into the empty nest concept from the start. “I was expecting and even hoping that older parents without children living with them would take exchange students. [Older people] are often more open to experience something new. There are a lot of advantages to being with older parents. They often have more time for the student and they try to do as much as they can. They also gained a lot of experience over the course of their life and you can learn a lot of things from them. I learned a lot of small and simple things from my host parents. But also they helped me to better understand the American culture and American point of views. They also taught me some things that I can benefit from when I move out and live on my own.
Luc had the most amazing year in the US, living with empty nesters he describes as kind and generous. Among the many highlights, there were football games, a vacation in Mexico he describes as “the greatest holiday trip in my life”, Christmas and his birthday.
And just like all the above stories, this one is just beginning. “I am 100% sure that I will visit them in the US as soon as possible. I hope that I might be able to visit them after my graduation in two years. I also hope that I will be able to see my host brother in Spain in the near future. And they are already planning to visit me in Germany.”
What will he remember 20 years from now? “Twenty years is a long time but I think a lot of things from this last year will be remembered my whole life. I will probably remember one of the greatest experiences of my life. I will remember their lifestyle and how nice they were to me. I will remember how generous it was to take two teenage kids and host them for a year and show them a new culture."
Exchange Student: Terezka’s Story
Terezka from Slovakia loved landings in two different empty nests. “My first empty nest host family was already hosting one exchange student. The host parents were always trying to engage us in something, showing us new places, new games or movies. Thanks to (this) host family I got to travel to Arizona, Nevada and California. I will be forever grateful for such an incredible experience with them.”
And then it came time to move to another friendly, loving empty nest. “They were all very kind, smiley people and helped me a lot, especially in the spiritual way. We often read the Bible after dinner and I learned a lot of new things. I really enjoyed my time with them, they kind of reminded me of my grandparents, always making sure I had everything I needed. It was truly a blessing to live with them.”
Each family was different, but both provided Terezka with wonderful experiences. “What I liked about both host families was that they always made sure I was doing okay and had everything I needed. I learned so many great things from them and made unforgettable memories.”
And she discovered the advantages of living with empty nesters. “The parents only focus on you, making sure you have everything you need. In most cases, they are glad they can take care of someone again and will try their best to make you feel comfortable, preparing your favorite meals or watching movies you like.”
What advice would Terezka give future students?
“I would say that communication and honesty are the keys to any good relationship, same with host families. It’s good if you manage to find similar hobbies, for example, fishing, books or painting, something to talk about and doing things together will help you get to know one another better. Share your childhood memories, talk about your family, cook something for them. Give them time and listen, respect them as if they were your actual grandparents.”
Empty Nesters: Are they “good” host parents?
You be the judge!
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