Category Archives: host family

Back in America 385 Days Later

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385 days after saying good-bye to our German Exchange Student… we are welcoming her back to America! What a fast year plus 20 days it was! If you don’t already know the story, Lara came to us in August 2011 for the 2011-2012 school year at age 15 and in 10th grade. She left us June 2, 2012 at age 16.  She was home for a just couple days when she told her family she wanted to come back to America for her next summer break. Oh, how time flies! It went so fast that I figured the blog was still active so I’d start writing again. I initially started the blog to document my experience of being a Host Mother who was responsible for another woman’s daughter halfway around the world… and for a keepsake for Lara’s, and our, experience! Almost two years since the blog started and we have had more than 11,000 hits! A link for the blog is also on the website for the Exchange Company Lara used for her trip here so students can read about her experience. Lara also volunteers there by helping other students prepare for a similar journey to America. You can read the very first blog here: https://lifewithlara.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-exchange-experience-a-host-mothers-view/

1001176_10201421529129353_687189846_nSo…385 days later… we are back at the airport with most of the same friends who were there when she left,  We waited impatiently for 90 minutes until she came out of the International arrival doors. She was welcomed with a banner and everyone yelling, “LARA!!” We were definitely the largest group there to welcome someone at the airport!

385 days later… Lara’s room at the house remains intact. When we returned home from the airport, Lara quickly went to “her room.” It’s a little different than it was when she left but I made sure some items were left in place, like her Bible that she decoupage with the YoungLife kids still resting on a shelf, her old school notebooks on the desk and some of her pottery she made in Clay Class. In the closet were some clothes she decided to leave here, like her Homecoming dress!

20130622_194926385 days later… Lara’s friends are still giggling with her, telling old stories and ready for a night of swimming in the pool after a BBQ.  Some things never change! Brittany, Morgan, Gabby, Erin, Addy, Charlie and Jack were in and out of the pool for most of the evening, along with our son, Travis, and his girlfriend, Rubyann. Then they had to make the traditional trip to Ocean Blue, a yogurt shop around the corner, was a must-do, followed by a movie. It was certainly a late night and a long journey for Lara after 15 hours on planes and jet lag!

385 days later… I realize nothing has really changed since Lara left. Social Media helped us all keep in touch almost every day. I’ve been texting with Lara at least 3 to 4 times a week through WhatsApp, a phone application that’s free texting. We can send photos, videos or record our voices too.  Of course, we’ve Skyped about every other month and had fun sharing things on Facebook and Instagram. Brittany, and has kept in touch with Lara a lot through SnapChat, along with Morgan and Gabby.

SAM_0836385 days later… it’s like Lara never left. Everything is in the same place in the house… some furniture has moved around or is missing but it’s still “home” to her. As I write this, she’s back in the pool on the rafts and playing with the dogs! When she got to the house, she walked right in and checked out the pantry, some of the cabinets in the kitchen, the fridge. She’s just like anyone else in the house and knows I won’t do everything for her. She’s on her own and has to make herself at home again.

385 days later… I’m back to planning some trips with Lara. During her 10 month stay we visited Washington DC, New York City, went on a Baja Mexico Cruise and to Los Angeles and Disneyland. Somehow… we never made it to the Grand Canyon. I know… pretty sad on my part, right? So… a trip to the Grand Canyon is in order. I’m also taking her to “small town America” for the 4th of July. It’s just too hot in Phoenix to do anything so we’re headed up to cool country and Prescott, Arizona for a carnival, live music, fireworks and an Arts and Crafts Show. A trip to Las Vegas is in the works, staying at Mandalay Bay where there’s a beach and lazy river. Lara met her mother in Vegas for a couple days towards the end of her stay in America but I’d like to take her to see some other sights there with Brittany. And if we still have time…we might make it to the beaches of San Diego and Sea World.

385 days later… I can see it’s definitely going to be an action-packed and busy summer! And of course, I’ll document our reunion along the way right here!

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The Final Chapter-A Host Mother’s Thoughts

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Almost 2 months since Lara, our Exchange Student, returned home to Germany, after 10 months of living with us. And it’s taken me this long to absorb it all, write the Final Chapter of this Blog and turn it into a book. Don’t get me wrong… I will still cry… and I will have to take a tissue break… but it’s important to reflect on the year and answer questions so many people have asked about this once in a lifetime journey.

In my initial blog post, https://lifewithlara.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-exchange-experience-a-host-mothers-view/, I shared the hopes and fears that I had being a Host Mother to a teenager whose family and friends were on the other side of the world. It was an overwhelming feeling at first but I took it one day at a time. Now, almost one year later, I’m amazed at how fast the time passed and how much our family learned about another culture, about life and about love for a complete stranger.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked is, “Will you host another student?” My answer is a quick, “No”. It catches some people by surprise and the first question they shoot back is, “Why? Was it a bad experience?” My answer again is, “No”. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. It was such a wonderful, heartwarming experience that I don’t think it could ever be repeated. You see… we didn’t only host an exchange student who wanted to learn about America. We added a member to our family. And that has grown into an extended family that includes her mother, father, brother, grandparents and best friends.

The goal of the Blog was to keep Lara’s family and friends informed on everything she was doing. From experiencing things for the very first time… to how school was going…. to making friends… to adapting to the American culture. From the connections I’ve made around the world, I can only assume the project was a success! Lara’s friends in Germany became my Facebook friends. I imagine, if they saw that Lara liked me, they could like and trust me too. They saw that I was her “Mother” and helping her complete a 10-month adventure.

One of the most special relationships I’ve developed from this experience is with Lara’s Mother, Ana. From the moment we met on Skype, when we learned Lara was going to live with us, and she cried knowing who was going to care for her daughter… to the day we met in person… we formed a special bond.. one that only two Mothers can share caring for the same child. At times, it’s an unspeakable bond. I would email Ana and talk to her about things Lara was doing here… just between us Mothers. I felt her pain and cried when I learned she was struggling with Lara being gone during the holidays. I imagined how I would feel if my daughter, Brittany, were to leave for 10 months. Honestly, I don’t think I can do it. But Ana stayed strong for her daughter…so her daughter could live an American life. Isn’t that what we do for our children? We stay strong? We guide them through the best and worst of times? It’s what Ana and I both did for 10 months but from halfway around the world.

The day I met Ana, it was a very emotional moment for us. (Yes, here come the tears again). You may recall, Ana traveled to America two weeks before Lara went back to Germany. She arrived at our home just 4 days before Lara left. I can clearly relive the moment Ana pulled up to our home and we went outside to greet her. We met in the middle of the grass and hugged and cried and cried and cried. And the tears were those big alligator tears that just pour down your face! Finally, the woman who trusted me to care for her most prized possession — her daughter — is at my home so we can share Lara TOGETHER! That night, we sat at the kitchen table and talked for hours about everything Lara has done, how she has changed, the friends she made, the woman she had become… all while Lara, Brittany and their friends were running around the house being silly. Her mother said, “I see a different girl than the one that left Germany. But it is a good difference. She has grown as a person.” She thanked me so many times for taking care of Lara and for the Blog. So I guess… the purpose of the Blog was a success.

I’ve connected with others around the world who just wanted to see what life was like as an Exchange Student. Maybe they are thinking of doing the same. Others wanted to see inside just one America family’s lifestyle. Others enjoyed the travel aspect of our time with Lara and how a German student was able to experience trips to Washington, DC, New York City, a Baja Mexico cruise, Los Angeles and a first-time visit to Disneyland! Others I have connected with are experiencing a similar German-American relationship and we now follow each other’s blogs.

There’s also been an unexpected surprise to writing this Blog. The German  Company that coordinated Lara’s trip has asked to share the link on their website. They think it will help other students understand the Exchange Student experience. Of course, for those of you who followed our adventures, many said living with us was like living in Disneyland, with all the people and places involved! And we all know everyone’s experience will be different. But I hope others can see the potential for Host Families to be caring, loving and open to teaching a student about America. One friend called me an “Ambassador for America”. I laugh at that but, in a way, I can also relate to it. 🙂

So, what happens next? I’m turning the Blog into a book so that we will have the experience captured in hardcover. Lara will get one too. Lara already has plans to visit us next summer. I plan to go to Germany in Summer 2014 when my daughter graduates from High School. Of course, there’s always Skype, Facebook “Likes” and private Facebook messages that go to our phones…as if Lara and I are texting each other. So, we are in touch all the time. And, of course, there’s always that unspeakable love for her as if she was one of my own children. Some things… like love for a special person… never change.

I leave you now with a greeting card we just received from Lara. Below the picture of the front of the card, I share the inside caption. She also listed all the things she misses about being here. They are the exact things I knew she would miss… the little things about being a family.

  

Inside the card: “Not only do I miss you, but now I’m really hungry.” 😦   Some things with teenagers just never change!

We love you Lara!  XOXOXOXO

Victoria… your silly Host Mum forever!

Saying Good Bye

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It’s been 2 weeks exactly since Lara went back to Germany…and it’s time for me to complete a couple of final posts. I’ve been putting off re-living the day she left… for obvious reasons…. but here goes….

Lara’s last 24 hours in Arizona were filled with laughter and tears… and more laughter and more tears. We all knew this time was going to come but I’m not sure if we knew how difficult it was going to be. On Friday, June 1, Lara spent the day packing. She came with 1 suitcase and left with 2! We got her a suitcase for her birthday because shipping her extra things home was going to cost more than taking an extra suitcase on the airplane for $60. She had to decide if some things were actually going to make the trip home, like a couple of books. And she left a few things here… like her homecoming dance dress. She said she would get it next time she comes back. I don’t think she would be wearing it much in Germany anyway. 🙂

We were able to take a break mid-afternoon so we could bring Lara’s mom, Ana, and her friend, Gisela, to Lara’s favorite place to east… WENDY’S! From the first time Lara went there, she was hooked. And I don’t think it was so much for the food as it was for the soda machine. Yep… the $1-million dollar soda machine that offers 103 different kinds of soda! The Wendy’s closest to our home has one and it’s a hit with everyone! Of course, we had to get a picture of Lara by her favorite machine! Her favorite things to eat there… chicken nuggets or a Caesar Chicken Go Wrap, the fries of course and a chocolate Frosty. She even liked what we call an “American Teen thing”…. dipping french fries into a Frosty! I don’t care for it but for some reason, it’s liked by many teenagers!!!

That night, Lara and Brittany gathered with friends at Jack’s house. It was the last time their group of friends could hang out and be silly. At first they were planning an all-nighter and wanted to camp out in Jack’s backyard. But both Ana, Lara’s mom, and I advised her that the next day was going to be very long and emotional and she should get some sleep. After several hours at Jack’s house, they decided to go to iHop (International House of Pancakes) for a very late meal. The funny thing was they went dressed up in costumes! Jack’s mom, Becky, pulled out Halloween costumes and they put on the strangest combinations of clothes! When they got to the Restaurant, the server said, “Should I even ask what you are doing?” They told her that Lara was leaving for Germany the next day. The Server said, “Is this a German tradition?” and they all laughed. Lara’s reaction was, “No, this is only something crazy Americans do!” She’s kind of right, isn’t she? Especially with this group of kids! They’ve really learned how to think outside-the-box with all the antics they do with YoungLife!

We all got up early the next morning so we’d have plenty of time at the airport. I was doing fine getting ready in my room… up until I walked downstairs. It hit me at that moment that it was going to be time to say good-bye. Our son Travis had to go to work and couldn’t ride along to the airport so Lara and Travis had to say good-bye here. That was my first jolt of tears… and it was’t easy to stop. I didn’t want Lara to see me cry just yet so I walked to the other side of the house. A few minutes later, two carloads of her friends arrived at the house. Morgan’s mother came along to drive one of the cars because she was worried the kids would be too upset to drive home after Lara left.

When we got to the terminal, all the kids were sitting together. Lara, Ana and I went to the ticket counter to check-in. We also wanted to request a pass for Ana to be able to walk Lara to the gate. For days, I was worried about everyone saying goodbye to her and then her having to sit at the gate, waiting for her plane, by herself. when we walked back to the kids, there they were standing off in the distance holding a bright yellow banner that read, “Goodbye” (with the Goodbye scratched out)… and then “See you Soon, Lara”. Ana, Lara and I just burst into tears… and then the kids did too. I knew that was the end of trying to hold in the tears. You can see our red eyes in the pictures Ana took right after that.

We gathered our emotions and decided to move further into the terminal. We took up an entire section of seats. That’s when the kids started writing messages to Lara on the banner so she could take it back with her. I couldn’t tell you what the messages were, because I couldn’t bring myself to read them. After the banner was signed, Ana folded it several times to fit it in her suitcase. A memory forever for Lara.

Soon Ana said it was time for Lara to go through security and head towards the gate. We walked her as far as we could go and then the hugs and tears started. Travelers all around us were watching as about 14 people were just hugging and crying. The third to the last person to say goodbye was Brittany. The second to last person was Terry. I was the last one. And as we held each other and cried, I think everyone else cried even more. We let her leave and watched her walk down the lane for the security checkpoint. As she walked around the final corner, we knew it was time to go home… with one less friend and family member by our side.

There’s really only one more Blog post to write… the final words from me to close this chapter of our lives. I started the Blog to share the experience of being a Host Mother to an Exchange Student living half way around the world, away from her family and friends. The last post is a time for me to express my feelings after this 10-month adventure. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!

Lara’s Going Away Party

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As I continue to catch up on Blogs of our German Exchange Student’s last week with us… Lara’s Going Away Party was definitely a highlight… along with Lara’s mother arriving at our home!  Ana, and her mother’s friend, Gisela, arrived Tuesday evening. We spent hours talking about Lara’s life here and getting to know one another… although I felt like I knew Lara’s mother my whole life. We really have a lot in common. I guess that is why I got along with Lara so well! It was truly an honor to finally meet Ana in person! On Wednesday, we took Lara to get her American Driver’s License and then Ana and Gisela went to the Tonto National Forest of Cactus and to Canyon Lake. All of this led up to Thursday night, May 31 at 6:00pm… Lara’s Going Away Party!

All day Thursday… while we prepared for Lara’s party… Lara, Ana and Gisela visited local sites in downtown Tempe and Phoenix.  We wanted them to explore the Valley while we focused on the party’s theme…  All American with Red, White & Blue everywhere! All the guests were asked to wear one, two or all three of the colors and the food and decorations matched! It was fun searching Pinterest for ideas! Our daughter, Amber,  who went to culinary school, was here early to help! It’s always nice having the Pastry Chef Professional here for a party! She made a Layered Berry Trifle with Angel Food Cake, Strawberries, Blueberries and whipped cream! A red, white & blue beauty! Brittany made red, white & blue cupcakes… and displayed them on a plate like an American flag. I made White chocolate covered strawberries with blue sprinkles on the end! You can see from the  photos that we tried to do as many foods as possible in America’s colors!

Brittany and Lara’s best friends, Morgan and Gabby, headed up the decoration committee! I gave them rolls and rolls of red, white and blue streamers… and other decorations… and told them to go wild!! And they did! It was so festive and colorful in the house. And outside they hung bunting over the front door and put streamers on the bushes! It looked like we were celebrating the 4th of July!!!

At 6:00pm, friends and family started filling our home. If someone met Lara during her time here, they were invited to celebrate her experience and say farewell! I think my favorite thing at the party was a gift our oldest daughter, Melody, brought for Lara. It was a sash saying “Miss America” as if Lara were in a Beauty Pageant! I estimate about 65 people came in and out the door. And as each person came in, I introduced them to Lara’s mother and explained to her how Lara had met that person and how they impacted her life here. At the beginning, it was a little overwhelming for Ana to see all the celebration for her daughter and cried tears of joy. She always knew here baby girl created a life for herself here but I think she realized, at that time, that Lara was loved by so many!

Our friend, Kim, is a professional photographer so I asked her if she would take pictures at the party. As you can see… she truly captured the celebration! If you’ve been following the Blog, you may remember that Kim is who Lara stayed with for 5 days while we went to Nebraska for my father-in-law’s funeral. Lara took a Digital Photo class in High School here and developed a talent for photography, that she shares with Kim.

There were just as many adults as there were friends at the party. Gabby and Morgan created a photo slide show of Lara to two of her favorite songs… covering her 10 months in America. We had that photo show playing in our Game Room throughout the night so anyone who came in the room would see all the fun Lara had here. It included more than 100 photos and was so fun to watch! Everyone loved it!

I was afraid this was going to be an emotional night for Lara as she had to say good-bye to so many people. But she held up pretty well! She laughed and hugged everyone as they left… but not many tears were shed from her eyes. Instead… it was me that became emotional. My first tears in public came that night as friends and family were asking about  what was going to happen the day she left, how we were going to take her to the airport and how would we say good-bye. As I talked about it, the tears just came. It was now a reality that the teenager who was part of our lives for 10 months, would be leaving in less than 48 hours!

Coming up next…. saying Good-bye at the Airport. Have a tissue ready for that one. I know I will. 🙂 In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!

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More FIRSTS before she leaves America

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As many of you know, our German Exchange Student returned home one week ago. But before we close this book about our adventures with Lara… I have a few more blogs to complete! I needed some “adjustment” time after she left and had to catch up on work. The goal… when the blog is done… is to turn it into a book of memories for our family and for Lara.

Lara’s last week here was quite busy! She has some great… and silly… friends here in America. As we neared the day she would leave, this Exchange Student still had a lot she had not done or seen…even after spending almost 10 months here! With a couple days left in her visit, her friends made sure she did some things she had not done yet… or as they called it … “Firsts”.

Morgan picked her up for lunch, They went to a nearby restaurant called “Sauce” and to Jamba Juice. Then they went to KMart. Yep… KMart. I had never brought her there because… to put it quite bluntly… I just don’t shop there. But I found it funny that the girls even thought of it!

Then, as they walked out of KMart, Morgan asked Lara if she had taken a ride on a carousel in America. Lara said no. Just then, they saw one of those small children’s carousels outside of KMart. Yep, they rode that!

Morgan then got Lara a Jones Soda… another first. And then they came home and said they were going to “Heart Attack” someone. I didn’t even know what that was! They said you cut out hearts and stick them to someone’s car. Well, Jack was going to be their victim but it was taking too long to cut hearts so they just used sticky notes, stuck them on Jack’s car and they Ding-Dong-Ditched him. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when you ring someone’s doorbell and then runaway and hide so they don’t see you when they open the door.

From there it was time to go Ice Blocking. By then, Jack and Gabby also joined Morgan and Lara…and they came by the house to pick up Brittany. You see… since we don’t get snow in Phoenix and can’t go sledding, people buy large blocks of ice, sit on them and slide down hills… like at a park. The pictures are a little dark but you get the idea of how much fun they had! I’ve included a few other ‘Firsts” in the photos below!

The next blogs… (1) Lara’s Going Away Party, (2) Saying GoodBye, (3) The First Week Without Lara, (4) Keeping in Touch, (5) A Host Mother’s Final Thoughts. I will probably need some tissues for some of these! 🙂

A German Instructor for the German girl’s Driving Lesson

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It can be quite an experience learning how to drive…for anyone. But when you’re from another country, living away from home AND learning how to drive… it could be scary! Well, Lara just survived her American experience of taking driving lessons!

First of all, if you haven’t read why Lara is taking lessons here instead of at home in Germany, be sure to read my Blog Post from November. https://lifewithlara.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/taking-drivers-education-in-america/

When I called the Driving School to schedule her lessons, the lady at the school said they had an Instructor from Germany who has been waiting and waiting for his first German student. Well… it turned out to be Lara! His name was Volkar… and he’s been in America for 10 years.

Her first lesson was Friday. Volkar was supposed to be here at 11:30am. At 11:35am Lara said, “The German is now an American. He is late.” I laughed so hard at that! They soon left and were gone for 3 hours. About an hour or so later I received a call from my friend Kay. She was also Lara’s cabinmate on our Cruise in January.

Kay says, “Is Lara in a Stop-and-Go Driving School Car?” When I told her yes, she said she was driving right by her on the freeway! For a girl who didn’t get much practice on the road, they didn’t waste much time putting her on the freeway! Kay was telling us that she looked like she was doing well behind the wheel and she was going to catch up to them and get a picture! I went into worried Mother mode and told Kay not to distract Lara! I was so nervous for her! Kay said she was a safe distance away! They eventually drove past Lara and waved at her…and took pictures!

The Instructor had a sense of humor and told Lara to look over that she had some friends waving at her. He was funny another time when he told Lara that when someone honks at her as a driving student, she is allowed to honk back! She said she was honked at twice. And she said she honked back! 🙂

Today (Sunday), Lara went out for her second , and final, driving lesson. I got to meet Volkar this time. He was very nice and was still excited that he had a German student. He said they talked English the whole time and when he tried to talk to her in German, she was having a tough time getting the words out. He said he still speaks German at home but understands how she has forgotten her native language. He assured her it will come back when she goes home!

Today they went to downtown Phoenix to maneuver around the one way streets and practice freeway driving some more. There was an event downtown so she had a lot of traffic to deal with and learn how to handle. And then he gave her the driving test. We’re happy to say she passed with a 100% score! Now we just walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles on May 30, when her mother is here, she turns in her score sheet and she gets her license! Yet another new experience in America!

Preparing for her departure

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In 10 days, our German Exchange Student will be on a plane headed back to Germany… to home…to her friends and family she’s been away from for almost 10 months. A happy time for all of them. A sad time for all of us as we have to say good-bye. And now the countdown is on to get so many things done before she leaves!

Our schedule is tight. The last day of school is tomorrow, Thursday. Lara, Brittany, Travis and their friends are going to the graduation ceremony at the High School Thursday night to cheer their friends who are graduating. Lara says that will be something new for her.

On Friday and Sunday, Lara has to go out with a Driving Instructor for 3 hours each day. She needs 6 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction before she can get her driver’s license. She started practicing on our lawnmower in the front and back yards. She can’t go to get her license until the 30th. That is exactly 6-months from the day she received her permit. I know… we’re cutting it really close to her leaving. In my blog in November, I explained why Foreign Exchange Students often get their driver’s license in America…even though they may not be able to drive at home until they are 17. If you didn’t read the blog in November, they save thousands of dollars getting their license in America!

On Tuesday, Lara’s mom arrives at our home. She flew into San Francisco with a friend on April 16th, drove to Los Angeles where Lara met her on Saturday, then they drove to Las Vegas. Lara returned to our home Tuesday night. Her mother is visiting National Parks and other sites for a week and will make her way to Phoenix Tuesday! She, and her friend, will stay with us!

In between today and the day her mother gets here, Lara wants to do so many things… get a pedicure for the first time… go out with friends, maybe to the Water Park or the Lake… spend a gift card at a jewelry store she hasn’t been too! Probably a million other things are running through her head!

We are throwing Lara a going away party on Thursday. It’s a Red, White & Blue themed party! Everyone will wear America’s colors, the food will be in American colors, the decorations will be in American colors! Anyone who has crossed paths with Lara has been invited! Of course, I will share pictures with you the following day!

Next Friday will be filled with packing and sharing memories with Lara’s mom. I’m also trying to come up with ideas on what to do with Lara’s mom when she’s here…because she will be here for such a short time! I’m sure we will come up with many things.

Then on Saturday, June 2, Lara leaves early afternoon and her mom leaves a few hours later. I’m not looking forward to that moment when she walks away, down the terminal aisle and we watch her disappear around a corner. At least we will all have each other here at home. I feel bad for Lara… who will have to sit through 3 flights by herself after saying good-bye to everyone. I don’t know if I could do that. These exchange students sure our tough! Stay tuned….