Don and Rhea DeButts have a blended family that includes eight daughters, but five of them are exchange students who each spent a year living with them through a non-profit program called International Student Exchange. This organization matches students all over the world with host families in the U.S. based on interests and values in order to provide a cultural learning experience to both sides. For Rhea and Don, it has not only enriched their lives, it’s changed their understanding of family.
Rhea doesn’t make a distinction between her natural children, her step children, and her exchange students. In fact, she doesn’t call her students by that appellation at all. “All of our kids call us mom and dad,” said Rhea, who’s covered the walls of her home with photographs of her large family, students included. It began in 2006, when Rhea and Don’s daughter, Ashlee, begged her parents to take in an exchange student she had met at school. “Please, please, please can she come here?” Ashlee asked. The Finnish student, Elisa, was staying at an arrival home temporarily, but she needed a family to take her in. The DeButts’ hearts were touched, and Don remembers how, “Elisa came to our door dejected and feeling unwanted, expecting to be sent back home. When I saw her tears, I felt compassion and made the decision right then that she would be a great fit for our already blended family.” Elisa did indeed become a member of the DeButts family. “We cried when she left,” Rhea recalls. While the goodbyes were painful, Rhea and Don realized during Elisa’s stay that they loved hosting and that they wanted to do it again.
Having hosted 40 students in their time, Rod Kelsey and Nancy Kelsey, Local Representatives for ISE, know how difficult it is to part with their kids. They say, “The best way to get over goodbye is to say hello to a new student.” The DeButts, who have hosted five students in past few years and plan to continue hosting in the future, can attest to the life-changing experience of ISE. “You think when you take in a child, you’re going to teach them all about America and our way of life, and that’s true. But as a host, I have learned more from my kids than they’ve ever learned from me,” Rhea stated. Each of her girls came from different countries, with varying viewpoints, cultural heritages, and personalities, but all of them became part of her family.
The DeButts’ most recent exchange students, Lisa Brattgård and Mathilde Nielsen, stayed at their home during the same school year, sharing a room together like real sisters. Originally, Rhea and Don had only agreed to be Lisa’s arrival family, since they already had Mathilde coming to stay with them, but once again, they could not refuse a child who needed them. Lisa remembers how the DeButts took her in: “They were more than welcoming. I was only supposed to live with them for a month as a welcoming family since no other family had picked me, but they let me stay the whole time I was in America.” The girls both told My City Magazine that although the experience of American culture was the main reason for wanting to come here, they experienced a great deal of culture shock upon arrival. “Mathilde remembers how there were people everywhere, and I had a hard time understanding them when someone spoke to me. My English was not that great back then. Fortunately, I had Lisa. She became my best friend.” Although Lisa is from Sweden and Mathilde is from Denmark, the girls have visited each other often since they returned home.
As for the joys of exchange, the girls say that the experience has been invaluable. Mathilde insists, “It has made me the person I am today; a person with a lot more self-confidence. Going on exchange in another country for a year surely gives you knowledge that you can get nowhere else. It makes you grow as a person having lived differently than everybody you know in your country.” Lisa says that her favorite aspect of the year she spent here was the opportunity to live like an American, including traveling for pleasure. “I loved homecoming week at school, Thanksgiving and Christmas with my host family, prom, and my trips up north and to Chicago.” Both Lisa and Mathilde recommend ISE to all of their schoolmates back home, and both girls have become determined to travel more as a result of the wonderful experience they had in Flint, MI. Mathilde says that although her visit to America, and Flint in particular, changed her perception of American living —“I had imagined wealth in every direction,” she admitted—she now considers Flint her second home: “That place became my home and by the end of the year, I loved the area.”
Hosting an exchange student is not as complex or as costly as a family may believe. The children have gone through an extensive application and screening process to qualify as an exchange student, including letters of reference, medical records, and original transcripts from their schools. Upon entering the program in their home countries, students purchase plane tickets and insurance, and they bring their own spending money with them; the host family is only responsible for providing a child with meals and lodging during their stay in America. Students are expected to partake in family life, including household chores and activities. Host families do not need to be a specific type or size, either. Nancy assures potential hosts that “families with children of any age, single parents, childless couples, and empty nesters all make wonderful hosts.” Although host families are not required to provide lavish entertainment while their students are here, many families want to show them the highlights and attractions of their locality. “We make it our goal when the kids are here to get their toes in as many Great Lakes as possible,” smiled Rhea. She also requires each of her girls to make a scrapbook during their time in America so that they have a memento of their stay to take home with them.
In speaking about her family’s involvement with International Student Exchange, Rhea emphasized how the program affects more than just the student and the family with whom they stay. The Flint community and the school system in particular are energized by the exchange of culture that takes place when students from across the globe spend a year on Main Street, USA. As a teacher herself, Rhea says that classroom discussion is enlivened by the sometimes radically different viewpoints that exchange students bring to the subjects they are studying.
While the enrichment to the community at large is important, Don says it is the connection between the exchange student and the family that prompts him and Rhea to host again and again. “I can’t say unequivocally that having an exchange student is for everyone, but for us it is an experience we will never let go. The girls are always in our hearts. We love them as much as we love our other children. They will forever be our daughters!” he affirms. Rod Kelsey, Flint’s Local Representative for ISE, is always willing to talk to prospective hosts about the joys of making a host student part of your family. Visit iseusa.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.