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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: host family

Welcoming our First Exchange Student!


My husband and I always wanted to be exchange students but the opportunity never really presented itself. One day while at our local YMCA we were presented the opportunity to host an exchange student. After about 45 minutes of chatting, we took the plunge & before too long we were looking at potential students to come live with us. 

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An Exchange Experience


For those families who have considered an exchange opportunity, do it! You will quickly realize the world is smaller than you think and that we are more similar than different from one another. Hosting a student is an opportunity you won’t regret with life-long memories made for everyone involved.

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What Family Means to Me...



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My YFU Experience: Kylie Neidich


Interview by YFU Alumnus and Campus Ambassador Ronak Gandhi with YFU Field Director, Host Mother & Area Representative Kylie Neidich

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A Quick Transition



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On the last day of his senior year, Roni recalled Ahmad’s emotion as he said goodbye to friends and teachers who had so warmly accepted him into their lives. His good heart and ‘hysterically dry’ humor quickly gained him the respect of his peers in the classroom, and the love and laughter of the Sutton family at home.

“It took a week or so for him to settle in, but we knew he was comfortable when he started to crack his jokes – just like he was really a part of the family.” The Sutton family learned, however, that beneath his ever-smiling face and relaxed attitude was a caring, observant, and humble young man. He was quick to apologize anytime he felt a joke was not received well, and asked many questions to help him learn and better himself for next time.

His caring and adaptive nature did not stop here. During the month of Ramadan, Roni remembers Ahmad’s quiet diligence to follow his prayer, washing, and eating schedule, all while still spending time with the family and his friends.

“Normally, I would leave a plate of food for him in the fridge for him to warm up after it got dark,” she recollected. “The one time I forgot, he was so understanding and asked how he could help make something for himself.”

By the end of the school year, Ahmad had succeeded not only in learning about American society and culture, but also in teaching his own religious and native customs to his peers and host family members. 


Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Ahmad and meet our incoming class of students today! 

Lifelong Friends in Another Place



002016-06-22T14:14:00Z2016-06-22T15:12:00Z13812240Youth For Understanding USA4011261014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin-top:0in;mso-para-margin-right:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt;mso-para-margin-left:0in;line-height:107%;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:11.0pt;font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}The Noble-Olsen family welcomed Maan from Saudi Arabia during the 2015-2016 school year to develop what they agreed would be “a lifelong friend in a different place.” Patricia his host mother, explained to us how their multi-generational household was perfect for a transitioning Maan, who was accustomed to living and interacting with his extended family in Saudi Arabia. For the family, this also meant multiple generations’ worth of learning and understanding of the Islamic religion and of Saudi culture.

The holy month of Ramadan, which occurred during Maan’s stay with the Noble-Olsens, naturally came with obstacles that required cooperation and an open-mind from Maan and his new family. Included in these were Minnesota’s long days, during which he had to fast, leading to an eating schedule that was inconsistent with the typical family mealtimes, and in respect to Maan’s religion, the elimination of pork and alcohol from their diet.

Patricia, who has a background in religious studies, thoroughly enjoyed the process of her learning from Maan about Saudi culture and religion, but specified how the extent of learning reached beyond just her and Maan.

“He very much enjoyed talking about religion,” she said. “He presented to his class about Saudi Arabia, and loved to learn about the religion of others.”

In the household, it was clear that Maan’s energy was special, as Patricia recalls finding him in conversation with her 4-year-old granddaughter. 

“My granddaughter adored Maan,” said Patricia when asked of her favorite moment of his stay. “I remember the two of them sitting with each other at the dining room table talking. She reached up to grab his arm and said, ‘I love you,’ to which he said, ‘I love you too.’”


On the night of his departure, Patricia recalled her family’s final dinner for Maan as a heart-breaking experience. As he was leaving very early the next morning, each family member took turns saying goodbye before going to sleep for the night – but Maan had something else planned.

“I woke up the next morning to find a post-it note on the door to our bedroom saying, ‘Love you, Thank you!’ only to realize that there were countless notes around the house expressing Maan’s love and gratitude for individual members of the family. He left 96 notes around the house, and I was still finding them two weeks later,” Patricia reminisced.

The Noble-Olsen family found in Maan a perfect example of how an intercultural exchange program can convey such understanding and compassion in a family while showing a young scholar a world so different from their own.  

Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Maan and meet our incoming class of students today! 

The Summer of 66


Written by YFU Alum Alicia Pond for The Light

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”  -- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending



I had been on an airplane only once before the departure of the 50 member, 1966 YFU Chorale to Latin America. During the 60’s, air travel was out of  reach for most people. No shorts or pajama bottoms on board; flying was so noteworthy you dressed in your best. There were no check-in lines, TSA agents, wands, x-rays, or limits on your luggage.

In order to reach the first city of our tour, Santiago, Chile, our flight itinerary started in Detroit and included stops in New York, Trinidad, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and finally Santiago. There were many unforgettable experiences en route, like the lay-over in New York’s Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal – a dramatic, curvaceous and futuristic structure. Saarinen himself described it as “a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel.” Another memory was the amazingly “sympatico” Argentine pilots who invited us to visit them, one by one, in the cockpit for a tour. Those were innocent times.

The most unsettling memory was the pilot’s announcement that there had been a military coup in Argentina while we were in the air. Neither the airline crew nor our group of parochial Michigan teens knew exactly what to expect when we landed in Buenos Aires. At the bottom of the stairs we filed off the plane and were met by a gauntlet of soldiers with rifles and bayonet tips. After gawking at our armed “hosts,” we were allowed to continue on to Santiago.

The Andes had me transfixed when we traveled to Sewell – a copper mining town no longer inhabited but is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, a dizzying statistic for Midwest flatlanders. It seemed as though I was standing on top of the world surrounded by jagged, snow covered peaks– in June!

I recall a concert in the coastal town of Valdivia because only six years prior, Valdivia had suffered from the world’s worst recorded earthquake (a magnitude 9.5) and rubble was still visible. I was interviewed in Valdivia by the local press about the Chorale and my photo appeared on the front page equal in size to that of Salvador Allende, President of the Chilean Senate and soon to be elected President of Chile.

We went on to sing in Uruguay. In a suburb of Montevideo, I stayed with a family who had a teenage son who remained my pen-pal for years. My family here wanted to gift me with a custom-made suede ladies’ suit (fine leather products were a source of pride to Uruguayans). They took me to a dressmaking shop where I was given a pile of fashion magazines and told that I need only select a style I liked from the magazine and it would be recreated for me in just two days. I was rather flustered when I had to strip down to my slip in front of the male tailor, but was further mortified as the entire family joined me in the fitting room. Standards of behavior in the US were rather different in 1966.

Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Our final stop was Rio. The friendship I developed with my host family has turned out to be one of the most consequential and durable of my life. So much of that stay in Rio de Janeiro is seared into my mind, so many firsts and so many lasting impressions. Forty-nine years later, we Skype frequently, my husband and I are godparents to one of my host-sister’s sons, we visit each other frequently and I consider myself to have one of the best Brazilian music collections in the Midwest!

It’s not as though the music-making and the Chorale did not leave wonderful impressions, but getting out of my comfort zone, opening myself to all that was new and different during those nine weeks, led to enduring friendships, heightened insights and new paths in life. It made me the person who has built homes in Tajikistan, performed election work in the Ukraine, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Russia; visited Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Botswana, Japan and more. There is no doubt much of what is “me” can be traced to the experiences from the summer of ’66.

Many Chorale items have been donated to and are now archived with the Library of Michigan. To search the archives, go here. If you have stories, journals, pictures you would like to share, please contact John Favazzo directly at

A Family’s Tradition


Written for The Light by Misha PutnamFamily traditions are founded on novelty and strengthened in iterations. Our family has been intertwined with Youth For Understanding from the very start. It began in 1983, when Tokyo native Tomoko stepped into her new life as a YFU high school exchange student in Colorado. There, she befriended a classmate, Bob, and they remained connected through the years, eventually leading  to their wedding in 1989. Bob and Tomoko’s cultural exchange broadened as they learned more intimately the influence each respective culture had on the other. As he learned Japanese and developed a taste for her cooking, she got her driver’s license and became an American citizen.

Micah Putnam in Japan in 2009

Micah Putnam in Japan in 2009

As parents, they started a bilingual family with my older brother, Micah, and later, me. We both grew up with equal doses of Japanese and American cuisine, traditions and travel to familiarize ourselves with the culture of our extended families. Close ties to Japan influenced Micah to spend a semester of his senior year in Yokohama with YFU. As Micah stayed with the Suzuki family, we hosted their son, Yuta, in a yearlong exchange at our New Mexico home. By the time Micah had come home, the two had integrated into the others’ family so seamlessly that we truly felt like siblings. The year Yuta spent with us was a year of laughter and friendship that has kept our two families close.

Misha Putnam

Misha Putnam

Four years later, it was my turn. I spent my entire sophomore year in Sweden, experiencing all the wonders of an exchange year; right down to the language, the host family and the friends. What separated my exchange from that of my mother or brother was I was able to blog about my experience and came to form indelible bonds among the greater YFU community. Through every camp and orientation, to the individual students and leaders that became important during my year, I fell in love with YFU and the spirit of acceptance and affection, the hilarity, and above all, the sense of an even greater extended family.

As soon as I came home, I began volunteering every chance I got, including convincing my parents to host for a second time this coming year. I am happy to announce our tradition will continue as we welcome Arttu from Finland into our home for the school year. Our ties with YFU have brought more diversity, excitement, and joy into our lives than we ever anticipated. As a family, we are thankful for the global community we are now a part of and even more thankful for the life-long friendships we have formed.

The Journey Home – 50 Years Later


Christmas Eve, 2014. My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to come home for Christmas and we are in my parents’ restored 1761 house in a small village about 20 miles from Frankfurt, Germany. My husband and my dad are off somewhere, and it's my sister, my mother, and myself trying to add the final touches to the Christmas tree. We are all laughing and talking at once; although it's only been two years since our last visit, phone calls can't cover everything, and we are trying to catch up on each other's lives. Mostly, we are laughing about my plastic tree ornaments, purchased because they will not break in our suitcase, while Lucy, the family cat, takes a swipe at one of my mom's glass ornaments and sends it crashing to the floor.

We are waiting for a visit from my sister's boyfriend, whom I've never met. Francesco is everything she promised; a handsome, charismatic Italian who owns a restaurant about a half hour away and who will host my sister's 50th birthday party in three days.

On Christmas Eve, two of my brothers arrive to join the celebrations. The dinner table is full of people and good food, followed by the uproar of passing and opening presents. It is a wonderful evening, full of love, hugs, family and laughter, and I know I will remember this Christmas for a long time.

Two days later my sister turns 50 and it begins to snow in the morning. The snow is beautiful on the trees, bushes and old houses in the village; everything looks like a picture of an Alpine village. Not realizing it is time to stop, the snow keeps falling and now the serious business of snow removal becomes necessary. By law, each resident must clear a 4 foot walkway around their property. Sadly, because our village streets are so narrow, old, and crooked, the village does not have any snow removal equipment. The area between the cleared walkways are filled with parked cars and are now  about six feet wide with snow and icy ruts.

After a nail biting trip out of the village, we arrive at Francesco’s restaurant and are escorted into their back dining room. The lights are dimmed and each long, deep window has a candle burning in it. Tables with white cloths and fresh flowers are everywhere. Along one wall stretches more tables joined together and filled with an amazing array of Italian appetizers, a prelude to the four main courses displayed on the tables around the corner. The room is full of Italians. These are Francesco's extended family who love my sister and who are now prepared to love our family. Trays of drinks are passed and 40 people sit down to feast.

After dinner, Francesco wheels in a cart with a massive birthday torte. So large that he baked the layers, one at a time, in his pizza oven! We all sing Happy Birthday in German, then English, then Italian (sort of). Francesco gets out his guitar, sits down at one of the tables and plays and sings for the next hour. Magic! My parents, husband and I leave for the trip home, but the party continues long after we leave.

McCutcheon with her host father Carl and host mother Maria celebrating 50 years as a YFU family

McCutcheon with her host father Carl and host mother Maria celebrating 50 years as a YFU family

On January 30, my parents celebrate their Diamond (60th) anniversary. As is the village custom, people start dropping by the house around 10:00 in the morning; the mayor comes and the local priest, along with various neighbors and friends. My mom and I are in the kitchen frantically washing out champagne flutes and making more open-faced sandwiches as visitors come and go. At noon, there is a dinner planned at a restaurant in our village. The restaurant is closed except for our party and we take up the whole main dining room with one huge massive table for 45 people. Our florist has sent flowers and they fill the length of the table. My last brother and his family, who live over two hours away, are able to fight through the snowy conditions to be there, as well as my aunt, uncle, various cousins and their families, some friends of my parents, and all us kids. A close family friend from Poland makes the 12 hour drive to our village with his whole family to help celebrate, which was very special for my Mom and Dad. There are speeches, toasts, and lots of pictures. It is a glorious time that goes on all afternoon, and is a proper celebration of such an important milestone.

Lest I give the impression that all we do is party, in between all these special celebrations, there is the daily cooking and cleaning. As usual, I hang over my mother's shoulder as she cooks, writing down her recipes as fast as possible, and trying to guess if a large handful of chopped onions is either more or less than a cup, and hoping to be able to reproduce what she is making when I get home.

At the end of our trip, a final celebration is in order. On January 2, my husband and I host a final get-together with our immediate 17 member family. Now, I wish for a better command of the German language, with fewer “cooking”, “cleaning”, and “shopping” words and more “feelings” and “gratitude” words. They are most certainly needed, because I am giving a short speech to commemorate the 50 years that have passed since I first became a part of this very special family in the summer of 1965. I tell my family that my initial exchange experience has led my life in a totally unexpected direction. One that absolutely and forever changed my life and the person I would become and has shown me another, broader, and better world than I had ever imagined. At the end of the speech, I am privileged to present my parents with a wonderful letter from YFU President and CEO Mr. Michael E. Hill, and a YFU Certificate of Recognition for their lifelong commitment to intercultural exchange.

That first summer, I remember my Dad telling me he signed up for an exchange student because he wanted his children to know other cultures and people in the world. These were far loftier thoughts than I, aged 16, had when I signed up as an exchange student with Youth For Understanding. It is impossible to overstate how clueless I was. One summer was all it took for us all to cement the relationship that has lasted for 50 years.

I remember surprising my family with a visit for my Grandmother's birthday; my German father showing up unexpectedly in Michigan after the birth of my son, pulling a little wooden wagon filled with blocks; and then again, after my divorce to make sure my son and I were alright. There are too many visits to count. The foreign exchange that began in 1965 between myself and one German family has widened and grown to include many countries and many, many more people. As we have passed the 50 year mark, it is amazing to look back and reflect on how much our original exchange has profoundly and happily affected the horizons of so many people.

McCutcheon with her host cousin Dirk who plans to visit the US in 2016

McCutcheon with her host cousin Dirk who plans to visit the US in 2016

From Gymnasium to the State Department


Written for The Light by Katherine Brown



I’ve based my entire career on my Youth For Understanding experience 20 years ago as a high school exchange student in Esbjerg, Denmark. I had just turned 16 in August 1994 when I began my semester abroad. I remember the experience being difficult. I struggled with the language and the winter. I was deeply homesick, but I met incredible friends who carried me through the experience and helped me to discover a curiosity about the world and America’s role in it.

My classmates were incredibly worldly; they were active in debating the future of their country and that of Europe just five years after the collapse of Communism. I remember sitting in gymnasium and learning about the war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both events had been elusive to me as a teenager in Los Altos, California. When questions came up about U.S. foreign policy, heads turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I remember never wanting to feel that ignorant again and wanting to be part of the conversation, as they were.

Brown speaking in her new role as Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

Brown speaking in her new role as Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

I currently serve as the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy at the State Department, which serves as a watchdog and an advocate for the role public diplomacy plays in U.S. national security. Luckily for me, the work is meaningful. In all of my work travels – from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Kenya – I carry my original exchange experience with me in big and small ways. I always aim to project the sense of humility and openness I felt so profoundly as a teenager. When legislators and policy makers ask why exchanges are worthy of investment, I can deliver the data and tell the stories with personal conviction.

I hope one day to return to Denmark, as I remember the warmth of the culture, the magic of the winter holidays, and the transformative friendships I made.



Written for The Light by Daryl Weinert

In 1979, a Youth For Understanding volunteer walked into my Spanish language classroom at East Detroit High School and began to speak, changing my life forever. I headed home that day with excitement in my heart and a map of the world in my pocket. The map depicted the many countries where YFU had programs. That night, and for weeks to follow, I perused the  map and pondered the possibilities.

I chose to apply for a program in Spain. One June day in 1980, scared, I flew to Madrid and moved in with my Spanish family. My Spanish was halting and limited, but their hearts were big. They shared their country with me, from Castilla to Valencia, from Galicia to Murcia (where they had a summer home on the Mediterranean Sea).

Weinert in Spain in 1980

Weinert in Spain in 1980

It was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy whose foreign travel until that point had consisted of a few trips across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. My time in Spain opened the world to me, a world of diverse cultures and scenery, but perhaps more importantly, a world of possibilities.

Following my YFU exchange, I attended the University of Michigan, earning degrees in Engineering and Economics. After graduating in 1986, I returned to backpack across Europe. In February of 1987, I left for a two and a half year assignment with the Peace Corps in Nepal. Not having had enough of intercultural living,I volunteered for a Department of Energy sponsored program in Hungary in 1992.

How did my YFU experience affect me? Three things stand out: First, living and surviving outside my home country filled me with self-confidence; second, it forced me to challenge assumptions about myself and my culture; and finally, it instilled me with a potent mixture of humility and empathy. All of this has made me a better professional, a better citizen, a better spouse, and a better parent.

Since that summer in Spain I have kept in touch with YFU. At first, by simply sending a modest annual donation, but more recently, I have been volunteering my time as a member of YFU’s Board of Trustees. Since 2012, I’ve had the honor of serving the organization as Board Chair. Through this work, I hope YFU can continue to offer students and families life changing experiences leading to global understanding.

DW Cafe

DW Cafe

Sports for Understanding


Written for The Light by Flynn Coleman

I didn’t know then that my first summer abroad, as a junior high school student with Sports For Understanding in Italy, would teach me so much about the kind of person I wanted to be. I was excited to represent the U.S. on a soccer team in Europe, live with a host family, and to experience all aspects of Italian life. But, when I boarded the plane for my adventure across the world, I was also nervous about what was to come.

Our team met in Rome, and after a brief time exploring the sites, we drove several hours north to meet our host families. A young woman in soccer clothes arrived to pick me up. She gave me a warm hug and we exchanged smiling “ciaos,” which was about all the Italian I knew at the time. We drove for what seemed like ages, until we arrived at a concrete house in the middle of a cornfield. Figaro, the family cat, was lounging in the sun. I scratched his head, and then made my way into my home for the summer. There I met the only other member of my host family, the unofficial adopted grandmother of the woman who had picked me up.

Coleman’s Sports For Understanding Soccer team in Italy, 1996

Coleman’s Sports For Understanding Soccer team in Italy, 1996

That night, I wondered what my summer would be like. How would I possibly communicate with the people I was now living with, who spoke no English? My Italian was limited to speaking Spanish with an Italian-esque accent.

As I unpacked my things, I started to hear the faint sounds of people singing, laughing, and strumming guitars. The sounds became louder and louder, until it seemed like these people were actually approaching the house. And then, in a moment I will never forget, the music came through the house, where a large group of people from the town had come by, singing, dancing, and playing music, to welcome me home.

That’s when I realized we all do speak the same language after all. And I saw in that moment that life is about connecting with and supporting others.

The night before I flew to Italy I cried, afraid of what was ahead. Everything felt so uncertain as I journeyed across the world to live with people I had never met, in a country where I knew no one. After the summer was over, on the day I was to leave my Italian family, I cried again, this time sad to leave behind the family who had cared for me from the moment I walked into their lives. They came home each day to cook enormous and incredible lunches, which to this day constitute the best meals of my life. They gave me a tour of the accordion factory where they worked long hours to make ends meet, drove me to soccer games and festivals, introduced me to their friends, sang and danced to American 80’s music with me, and gave me a place in Italy to call home.

They didn’t have much, but they shared it all with me. By the end of the summer, my Italian was quite fluent, and after I left, I continued to write my friends in Italy, who were really more like family. I will never forget the utter joy in their writing when I sent them a new stereo and cds of their favorite music. To this day, a picture of us on the soccer field is framed in my home. They live in my heart as people who taught me about the person I wanted to become, and who showed me that home can be anywhere when you are with people who love you.

I went on to spend much of my life living abroad, learning from people’s experiences worldwide. The young woman I lived with in Italy had suffered much discrimination throughout her life, something I have thought much about since my summer living with her.

I have since become an international human rights lawyer and social entrepreneur.  I have spent my life living the core belief that we are all the same underneath, and thus all equally deserving of the same rights; having our voices heard, an opportunity to follow our dreams, and a life of dignity. I have become a fervent advocate for women’s rights, including the right to participate in sports. Sports have immense catalyzing power; the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, and to teach leadership, confidence, teamwork, tolerance, and dedication.

Sports, and being a member of a team, have brought me some of the proudest moments of my life. I went on to play soccer for Georgetown – and I also play soccer wherever I go in the world. I joined a men’s team in Cambodia, where little Cambodian girls would come out to watch in awe as a girl played soccer with the boys. While studying abroad in Chile, I joined a men’s team with the help of my host family. I went out for the first game and we lined up to shake hands. Everyone shook hands, but when they got to me, they kissed me on the cheek. We played the game and our team ended up winning. We lined up after the game, and sure enough, everyone shook my hand, and no one kissed my cheek again. That day always reminds me of the power of women getting involved and having the opportunity to participate.

Ultimately, everyone has a story to tell. We all deserve to belong and to have a say in our communities, in business and politics, in a court of law, and in the world. From advocating for truth and reconciliation commissions, human rights protections, and transparent trade policies that dismantle barriers to entrepreneurship in the developing world, I have seen that we all want the same things; to be seen and accepted for who we are, and to have an opportunity for a brighter future for ourselves and for our families.

This is what I learned in that house, in that cornfield, in that tiny corner of the magnificent, Italian countryside. It’s what I’ve learned on soccer fields around the world, in war crimes tribunals, government halls, and people’s homes in villages thousands of miles from where I grew up. We should all be able to make our own choices about our lives.

Coleman in Rwanda in 2014 (photo taken by Betty Krenek)

Coleman in Rwanda in 2014 (photo taken by Betty Krenek)

A Unique Summer with Rie: How Exchange Impacted Both a Blind Student and Her Host Family


Rie 3

Rie 3

Guest blog by YFU USA Host Mom Lisa HudgensMy family's very first hosting experience was with a blind girl from Japan. She was the only student who was coming for a 6-8 week summer program that had not been chosen by a host family. We learned about Rie when someone posted flyers at a neighborhood event. My own children were 6 and 10 years old at the time. We had a large dog and lived in a ranch-style house in Novi, Michigan.

Rie was 17 years old when she came to us. She had lost her sight at age 3 due to cancer in her eyes. I learned that, by in large, Japan does not, "embrace" or make many accommodations for people with disabilities in their culture/environment. Blind children do not mainstream into the local schools, so they are sent away to live in a dormitory-style boarding school with other blind children when they become school-aged at about 6 years old. Rie was able to see her parents who lived in Kyoto on some weekends and during her vacations from school.

Rie had very good English, much better than the other exchange students, maybe because she was so focused on using her hearing to navigate her new world. She picked up the idiosyncrasies of the language better than others and she had a greater need to communicate in order to understand her new environment and culture. She was full of questions and absorbed and remembered everything she heard.

When Rie first came to our house, she asked that my 6 year old slowly walk her around so that she could feel the layout of the house with her hand and my daughter would tell her what each room was. She said that she was painting a map in her mind of our house and she counted the steps between rooms etc. To our amazement, she only needed to orient herself once. She would occasionally bump into a wall if she was in a hurry, with no harm done. Rie used a white fold-able cane when navigating herself only when she went outside of the house. She liked to hold the crook of someone's bended arm if we were navigating rough terrain or a very busy/congested area. She was up front about this with us and always told us how we could best help her in particular situations where she needed help - and we appreciated that.

Rie had technological tools to help her including a computer and keyboard that had adaptions so she could read and write using her braille keyboard. (Note: Cell phones and the internet were not available to the general public in mass yet.) We were fascinated that she was having to translate Japanese braille to English braille. I called around and we were able to check out English braille books from the Farmington Public Library for her and my girls watched intently as she used her fingers to read. She would read aloud to them and tried to teach them how to read English braille with their fingers.

Rie visited as a special guest to our Girl Scout troop where she showed the girls how to do origami. (She could feel which side of the paper was colored and which was white!) She would have the girls give her the different origami papers and try to trick her, but she always got it right. She built elaborate and complicated origami creations and encouraged the girls to ask her questions about life in Japan and her life as a blind person.

Rie was very neat and organized so she could easily find her things. Our family had to take care not to leave things on the floor so she wouldn't trip on something unexpected, which was a great reason to encourage my kids to keep things picked up. Although Rie had her own bedroom with a twin bed, she sometimes preferred to sleep on the floor as she was accustomed to sleeping on a mat on the floor in Japan. My girls thought this was very odd. We had to be mindful to turn off her bedroom light at night and the kids always had to knock before entering the bathroom because she didn't need a light and you couldn't tell the bathroom was occupied. She preferred to bathe each night and always cleaned the tub afterward. I'm not sure if the girls' bathroom was ever kept so clean on a regular basis! Rie loved to set the table, load the dishwasher and hand wash and dry dishes, she helped plant in the garden and take the dog for a walk accompanied by someone else. She liked to bake and just needed a little help with measuring. She liked to help at the grocery store and she held on to the cart and loaded and unloaded the items. She loved to brush the dog on the patio.

We took Rie on excursions where she could  be hands-on or use her hearing. Her favorite was a petting farm where she interacted with many animals for the first time and she loved music events where she always clapped to the beat or tried to get the girls to dance with her. She liked the hands on science museum, too. We took her to the Woodward Dream Cruise and she listened to the loud cars, went to a Fourth of July parade and fireworks and was so excited to go camping for the first time. She rode on the back of a tandem bike at Mackinac Island and was thrilled with the boat ride.

She liked bowling with friends, who were sure to steer her in the right direction. She enjoyed going to the local park and swinging for hours. She liked being with the family on movie night and we tried to help her understand what was going on.

Rie 4

Rie 4

Her favorite thing of all was meeting new people wherever she went. A bonfire with the neighbors was a special treat. She had never experienced a bonfire or roasting marshmallows and s’mores. A good friend of ours had a very good friend of theirs, Jerry, who was also blind. We got the two of them together for some of our excursions. He loved having Rie teach him Japanese as he already knew 3 other languages and he, in turn, tried to teach her to play the guitar. We provided her with a small musical keyboard in her room and she practiced piano daily.

In true Japanese form, Rie was never without her camera and would ask you to help her point it in the direction or sometimes take the picture for her as she always wanted a picture of herself with the new people that she met. She was creating a scrapbook to show her family and friends. She liked creating paper arts and beading bracelets. She looked forward going to church with our family, she liked the music, the prayers that were repeated aloud each week and she would try to say them, too. Her family was Buddhist, but she found the Catholic mass very interesting. She requested that we give fairly precise times when we needed her to leave the house so she could be 100% ready because she didn't like to be late.

Rie made a few good friends who helped her at exchange student outings and looked out for her. She was so very appreciative of everything; she experienced and showed so much gratitude. I think having young girls was great for her. They were uncomplicated and loving toward her and being an older sister gave her confidence that she could be helpful to them and they looked up to her. At the same time, my girls also loved being needed by Rie, helping to guide her and explaining the things that we saw to her. They felt empowered that they were helpful to someone older than them. Because "seeing" her new environment wasn't part of her experience, connecting to people in her new culture was her focus.

Rie was respectful, kind, helpful and appreciated the love of a family. She was not used to being hugged and shown much physical affection, but my girls got her used to it quickly. They liked to snuggle with her on the couch. The only rule was that they had to give Rie warning before giving her a hug so they didn't knock her off balance.

We had a wonderful time hosting Rie for a summer and it had an amazing impact on our family, especially our girls and everyone who met her. Everyone was in awe and also inspired by her bravery and gumption. She chose to become an exchange student at 17, came to a foreign country where she knew no one, and learned a new language and culture; all of this without her sight.

My girls still tell me today, ten years later, that they think of Rie when they have to get up the courage to do something that scares them. I am proud that we decided to take the chance and say YES to hosting Rie. The experience itself and all of the lessons we learned from each other have been immeasurable.

How Will You Give Back this Global Youth Service Day?


Did you know that April 17-19 is Global Youth Service Day? Consider hosting an event that gives back to your community while helping to increase awareness that we're all citizens of one world.This occasion provides the perfect opportunity to come together with your fellow volunteers, staff, students and families to share our mission within your local communities. Think about the causes that inspire you and come up with your own project or find a local event to participate in.

Have fun and get creative! You could:

  • Be ambassadors for peace - bring together area exchange students and cultural groups for an interactive intercultural day celebrating diversity

  • Offer to tutor students in language or world history

  • Get together with your neighbors and plant a community garden

  • Connect with elderly citizens through cultural presentations at a local senior residence

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.01.53 PM

One needs look no further than YFU students Sarah and René for inspiration.

René volunteered in a broad range of community service activities including walking to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, dismantling holiday decorations for the City of Ann Arbor, removing invasive plant species in Ann Arbor parks and cutting branches at a park on Nature Area Workday, shoveling snow for elderly neighbors, leading games for children at a pool event, and helping raise awareness of CBYX, YFU, and exchange through booths at community events. For GYSD René pulled weeds and invasive species in local forest to help regrowth of native species.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.02.06 PM

While on program, Sarah completed more than 137 hours of community service! Her involvement included everything from coaching youth soccer, volunteering at American Red Cross blood drives, participating in community recycling events, organizing international lunches where students brought dishes representative of different countries and discussed the culture and food of the country to classroom presentations on her native culture and language. She continued her involvement by participating in GYSD as a volunteer at the City of Portsmouth's Quarterly Hazardous Waste Collection, Document Shredding, and Electronics event.

Find more ideas and tips inYouth Service America's planning toolkitfor creating your own GYSD community project!



Share your service projects & photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #yfuGYSD. We’ll be following along and might even share your project on our social media. We can't wait to see how you will get involved!

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.06.14 PM

West Hills Middle School Students Enjoy Arctic Adventure as Part of Multicultural Celebration


West Hills Middle School sixth graders recently traveled electronically to the Arctic through a presentation by YFU exchange student Amisuna Berthelsen from Greenland, assisted by Marta Corriga from Italy. The program featured a live Skype hookup with a Greenlandic classroom where American and Greenlandic students could see and question each other about some of their vast cultural differences.  Among the tidbits that “Ami” shared about Inuit culture:

  • He never saw a tree until he was eight years old (visiting Iceland) and had to touch it to see if it was real.

  • His family has never had a car (there are virtually no roads), but they’ve had a boat and a dogsled.

  • He lives in the world’s smallest capital of 15,000 people. His country has almost 60,000 people, about the same population as West Bloomfield, yet his country is more than three times the size of Texas.

  • Typical foods include raw whale blubber, seal, musk ox, and, of course, pizza.

  • Greenlandic children speak Greenlandic, Danish, and English.

  • Ami never had a snow day until he came to Bloomfield.

Tweet from Andy Gignac from Skype classroom event.

Tweet from Andy Gignac from Skype classroom event.

The American students asked their Greenlandic peers about trends, sports, school, weather, and foods in their countries. When the American students asked about their electronic connectivity, all laughed when many of the Greenlandic students whipped out their smart phones. The assembly concluded with the Greenlandic version of Pharrell Williams' song, “Happy” followed by an Italian version of the same, as all danced together.

The assembly was a prelude to the Multicultural Celebration to be held at West Hills Middle School on the evening of Friday, March 27 from 6:30 to 9:00 pm.

Ami and Marta are two exchange students representing the group of eight YFU exchange students who have attended Bloomfield Hills High School this year living with local host families.

YFU is currently seeking host families for exchange students coming in August for the 2015-2016 academic year.  Visit the YFU website to learn more. Roll out the welcome mat, and see the world through the eyes of a new exchange son or daughter!

Chocolate Chip Dynasty


The Helland's surprise Jiting with a red envelope containing a collection of all the US state quarters after learning the importance of Lunar New Year in Jiting's home culture.

The Helland's surprise Jiting with a red envelope containing a collection of all the US state quarters after learning the importance of Lunar New Year in Jiting's home culture.

Guest blog by YFU USA Host Mother & Volunteer Denise Helland 

Just over three years ago the Helland family welcomed their Chinese daughter into their family. Denise and Rob were empty nesters living in a rural suburb. Jiting came from a skyscraper apartment in one of the world’s biggest cities. They all had a lot to learn.

Homemade chocolate chip cookies opened the doors to US culture. I taughtJiting how to bake on her second day, making cookie dough and showing her how to use our oven. She said that she would never be able to make them at home in Shanghai as most ovens aren’t large enough for even a small baking pan. While we introduced her to the all-American cookie, it was moon cake that transported us to China. Jiting explained this treat comes in many varieties - not just marshmallow. While shopping at the local Asian store, we got a good laugh upon realizing that what they were selling as a popular “Chinese” packaged treat was probably the only thing there that was made in America!

To Jiting, American schools were open and less restrictive in class choice with the exception of US history. In her first weeks, Jiting exclaimed, "Why must I learn so many little details about US history? We have dynasties and our history is not so difficult!" As we had with our own girls, together with Jiting, my husband and I spent what seemed like endless hours on homework.

Jiting immersed herself in every holiday – dressing as Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween; helping to make Thanksgiving Dinner with extended family; and caroling with the Christmas Choir.

In turn, we jumped into the Chinese New Year!

Jiting brought us to a real Chinese restaurant where families of first and second generations had gathered together to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. We were sitting quietly waiting for a server when she jumped-up and started waving her arms and snapping her fingers! Oh, not the American way! We asked her to sit and wait patiently. Jiting looked at me and said, "Mom, if this is an authentic Chinese restaurant, then we must do like at home. If I don't get someone to come to us, we will never eat!" The evening was very special and a lot of fun. We laughed about fortune cookies – another treat made in America and not authentically Chinese.

Then it was our turn to surprise her. We’d learned about the red envelope tradition in which Chinese youth receive money from their parents or grandparents at the New Year. We presented Jiting with a special red envelope containing a collection of quarters from each of the 50 states.  She was elated.

Jiting loved and was loved by all of us. When asked what she would like to do or where she would like to go before returning home, she chose to visit our extended family in Iowa as she’d grown fond of her American card-playing uncles and grandparents (she has become a master at cribbage).

Now a YFU China Volunteer, Jiting helps a new class of students each summer as they prepare for their adventures abroad. She is a lovely young woman attending college in the U.S. and is an unofficial liaison to Chinese university students who've never been to the States before. Our reunions continue every year – before the fall semester starts and at all the major holidays. Her first activity at every visit is to bake us chocolate chip cookies.

Learn how you can host a YFU student from China for 3 weeks this summer!

YFU Family Goes for Gold at Triple Play Family Fitness Finale


This week, YFU exchange student, David (Joon-Youb) from South Korea, joins his host family, The Brodsky’s of Lake Orion, Michigan in representing the US Army Garrison -Detroit Arsenal Boys and Girls Club at the Triple Play Family Fitness Finale Competition in Los Angeles, California.The Brodsky's (a family of six) plus David were one of five families chosen from across the country to compete in this finale based on their participation over the past six weeks in the first two phases of the challenge, which encompassed the Mind, Body, and Soul concept that Triple Play represents. "Mind" being nutrition and eating right, "Body" being fitness and exercise, and "Soul" being focused on spending quality time together and strengthening the family bond.

The family will be competing in a physical fitness obstacle course, have their nutrition knowledge put to the test in a round of trivia, and perform a skit showcasing all they’ve learned throughout the course of the challenge. They'll even be meeting former Olympian and BGCA alum, Jackie Joyner Kersey and her family at the event!

Before heading off to compete in the finals, Fox News Detroit welcomed David and the Brodsky’s for a live on-air interview! Check it out.

We hope you’ll join us in congratulating them on this amazing opportunity to represent their community, the Army, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the YFU family. Good luck Team Brodsky!

David & Brodsky Family

David & Brodsky Family

Host parents, Teresa and Patrick Brodsky with their four young children, along with a family friend and their YFU son David.

5 Tips for Host Parents


Exchange students are arriving soon. To help new host parents prepare, we’ve drawn from the wisdom of past parents by asking for advice on Facebook and Twitter. Below are 5 tips from host parents to help make sure your student’s arrival goes smoothly.1.  Figure out what your exchange student is going to call you. You can have them call you mom or dad or by your first name. Whatever it is you’d like them to call you, be sure to tell your exchange student what that is. This is a good way of opening up communication among the family and making yourself approachable to your exchange student.

2.  Be clear about the expectations of the house. In fact write down any house rules and go through them with your exchange student. The students are in a totally new situation, and some structure will help them adjust to it.

3.  Privacy! These students will be a part of your family in no time, but everyone needs privacy, even--and sometimes especially--with their family. This can be done in very simple ways such as, giving them some time to themselves each day, and making yourself available without hovering over them. A little privacy can go a long way in building trust.

4.  Don’t plan too much for them, at least not when they first arrive. We know you’re excited and they are too. But they’ve also just arrived in an unfamiliar place after a long trip, so give them a little time to adjust. You’ll have plenty of time for activities once the jet lag has worn off.

5.  They’re new here, so be patient. Yes, they’ve studied English, but they’ll still need some time to get used to speaking it outside of their classroom. The students will also need time to get used to aspects of American life that most of us take for granted. Of course you’re there to help guide them through it, but some things just have to be experienced. They’ll be comfortable in no time, so just be patient.

Have any tips yourself? Share them on our Facebook page or Twitter account!

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