By Josette Keelor
When Kathleen Sheetz of Stephens City was in school, she had the chance to discover the world without having to leave her home in Augusta County. By the time she graduated from Fort Defiance High School in 1987, her family had hosted six foreign exchange students. Since then, she has visited each of them in their home countries around Europe.
She calls them her brothers and sisters, and this summer, she, her husband and children plan to visit with her brother from Denmark and his family, who will visit them in July at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where Sheetz and her parents vacationed every time they hosted a visiting student.
The International Student Exchange program promotes learning about those who live in other countries, Sheetz said. Now, as an area representative for the ISE, she wants to help others experience what she did as a child.
The ISE is looking for host families in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, and Sheetz, who represents the area from Berkeley County, W.Va., to Harrisonburg, said those with or without children can be a host.
Those with children in the public school system would be preferable as host families, Sheetz said, since they would have more in common with visitors from abroad.
"Obviously you want them to experience life as an American teenager," she said. "You want to be able to allow them to do things and experience life here."
Single parents and empty nesters, however, are welcome to sign up as hosts, she said.
Visiting students will stay with their host families for a school year, Sheetz said. They'll start arriving in August, and area school officials say they hope to have plans in place by the end of June, she said.
"This right now is the time that we really need to find the host families," Sheetz said.
Host families are not required to pay for visiting students, Sheetz said.
Students arrive with spending money, she said, "So that is not a financial drain on the host family."
She recommended host families consider paying for visiting students if they're invited along on family vacations or outings.
"As a host family, it really does provide you with a great opportunity to be able to see the world and learn about the customs and traditions from another country," Sheetz said.
Host families can whittle down their options for which students live with them, like by choosing students with similar interests to those of their own children. They also can select preferred countries of origin, all non-English speaking countries.
ISE doesn't deal specifically with English-speaking countries, Sheetz said.
When she was in school, Sheetz's family hosted boys from Denmark and from Switzerland and girls from Sweden, Germany and Norway. The fourth girl, from Switzerland, didn't work out.
"Sometimes it doesn't work out, and students have to find a new host family," Sheetz said, but she still recommends hosting.
"I think it's a great experience, and obviously it's not something that everyone can do," she said. She said she hasn't been able to sign up to host since moving to Stephens City because she doesn't have the extra bed required by the ISE.
Host families must give two references when applying. The ISE will do a criminal background check on the host family and a home visit to ensure there is a spare bed for the student and a safe living environment.
"The reason we do the screening we do is definitely for the best interests of the student," Sheetz said. "You really want to go with a reputable organization." ISE was founded in 1982 and is designated by the state department, she said. It's regulated by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, and students who come here are insured with health insurance.
Foreign students also have control over where they are placed, she said.
"They sometimes will have a specific preference, but that's not common because that narrows their placement opportunities," she said. They potentially can travel to any of the 50 states, she said, but "If they don't get a host family, they don't come."
Ultimately, she said, it's the host family's decision who will live with them, and every household counts.
"We have a couple of hundred students that we place each year across the country."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org