By Nicole Hennessy
A bouquet of fresh red roses sits on the coffee table; however, it’s the scent of another, unidentified, flower that hangs heavily throughout the house.
James and Natalie Leek, sitting together on the couch, say they never had children – so the prospect of hosting a foreign exchange student became more and more exciting, until they decided they definitely would.
The Leeks made arrangements through the CIEE, meeting with local coordinator John Church, to determine who would be best-suited to stay with them in their North Olmsted home.
In August, Lea Herberg, a 15-year-old German girl, will arrive. She will spend five months absorbing a culture foreign to her, despite the stereotypes all countries acquire.
“We have such a big house and extra space, why not just do this?” James figured.
Because the couple never had children, they hadn’t had much to do with North Olmsted High School, within walking distance from their house. Now Herberg is enrolled, and whatever interests she cultivates, such as sports or theater, will give all of them a better understanding of a local school system, which, having grown up in India, Natalie never had the chance to see firsthand.
“You hear the football games going on,” James says, inching toward wanting to go. “You’re hearing the loudspeakers, and you’re seeing the lights … You see the school buses go by, and there comes the band …”
Natalie interrupts, laughing. She knows he wants to go to those football games.
“It’s also nice to see, well, how are the schools going?” James continues. “Because you can hear the school board and what happens in the community, but if you actually have a student going there, then you can learn more. Are they doing a good job? Or, are there things we could do as a community to try to improve our schools?”
Church says host families offer the student the opportunity to discover America through their eyes.
And, in the process of doing so, these families actually learn about themselves and where they come from.
While the Leeks worry about Herberg acclimating, they see North Olmsted as a welcoming community. Still, there are cultural differences, and kids will be kids, as some people say.
In addition to Natalie’s Indian background, James was raised by Dutch immigrants, which he later illustrates, jokingly referencing an edition of “Dutch for Idiots.”
“But most of my growing up was kind of isolated in the Ohio area,” James says. “So, that’s my world.”
When he saw India for the first time, he learned even more about people and culture than he had growing up. He is excited to share that experience with Herberg, who will have the opportunity to have her own adventure.
“Equate it to a coin,” he supposes. “We see the heads coin in this country, but if you turn the coin over, it’s tails. You just see a different perspective.”
When studying business at Case Western Reserve University, Natalie says, she was taken in by a family.
“Even though I was much older, it was still very important in forming my own character and giving me the confidence to integrate into the community, to be successful at what I was doing,” she says, citing this as an incentive for her being a host parent.
Still, they both laugh at the bottom line.
“We’re welcoming a teenager into our home!” Natalie laughs again. “Both of us have been teenagers, and I was a feisty one.”
Carol McDiarmid, who, through CIEE, hosted a German girl in her family’s Westlake home, says it was a great experience, but she’s not sure she’d take on the responsibility again.
That’s not to say it was too burdensome; rather, it was the opposite.
“She was a delightful girl; she acclimated very nicely with our family and with the school,” McDiarmid said, worrying she would not get such a great student twice in a row.
With a daughter who’s a freshmen and a son who’s in sixth grade, she added, “they were very sad when she left.”
Still, the family keeps in touch with their host student, Corina Corsten. And with all the technology available, the distance between them doesn’t seem nearly as great.
Like the Leeks, who look forward to learning more about their local school system, McDiarmid said Corsten was very interested in American politics, specifically the events centered on the presidential primaries.
“So we found ourselves discussing our political process in much greater detail than we probably would normally,” McDiarmid remembered.
“It was also interesting to hear a young German person’s perspective of Nazi Germany, and how it’s still so much spoken about.”
She doesn’t want to call it guilt, but she got the impression that there are still wounds healing, culturally, and there’s a sensitivity associated with it.
For the most part, CIEE students are responsible for their personal expenses, so McDiarmid said taking on this responsibility affected her and her husband Brian’s budget to a very minimal extent, aside from the trips they chose to go on as a family to places like Cedar Point and New York City.
Providing an extra meal every day, McDiarmid said, “is well worth the experience.”
James Leek has noticed lately there’s a German cultural center in Olmsed Falls, and both he and Natalie see the benefit of encouraging Herberg to become involved with the community there.
In addition, Case Western has a program with which the Leeks are involved in which they have a Chinese girl assigned to them. Her first time in the country, she’s come to the Leeks home a few times. Their role is to make sure she is OK and to help her through any struggles she might be having.
So, learning about Chinese culture will also be possible for Herberg.
Soft instrumental music playing in the background, James and Natalie look forward to August, excited about the effect this will have on their and Herberg’s lives.
“Having been a student that lived in someone’s home, I feel that you’re providing something so precious and important,” Natalie says of being a host family, James nodding along in agreement. “We’ll serve as ambassadors for this country.”
PULL OUT QUOTE: “We’ll serve as ambassadors for this country.” — Natalie Leek
SIDE BAR: Anyone interested in more information on becoming a host family can reach CIEE local coordinator John Church at 440-376-7757 or firstname.lastname@example.org.