Leigh Ann Parker never thought her daughter’s friendship with a Norwegian exchange student would lead to her family hosting teenagers from seven different countries.
But the Parker family has now hosted students in their Alabama home from places as far away as Thailand and Tanzania through the YES, FLEX and A-SMYLE program.
“Before we hosted our first international exchange student, the only foreign country I knew much about was Canada,” said Leigh. “I thought hosting would be a great way to expose my girls to different cultures and teach them that not everyone lives like we do.”
Leigh’s three daughters have become good friends with the students their family hosts, and have even gone to visit some of them in their home countries.
“They’ve all learned to have an appreciation for differences and get along with a wide variety of people,” said Leigh.
But Leigh’s daughters are not the only ones who reap the benefits of hosting exchange students.
“I like doing it because I get to have a bigger family,” said Leigh. “I have more people to love and more people to share life with.”
Leigh acknowledged that hosting international exchange students can be challenging, especially at the beginning when they are adjusting to the new culture and language.
But the hardest part, by far, is saying goodbye. The Parkers recently said farewell to Frank, their YES student from Tanzania, knowing that they will greatly miss him.
“When we got back in the car my husband swore to me that he couldn’t do this again, because saying goodbye was too hard,” Leigh said with a laugh. But the family is ready and excited to host their next exchange student. Leigh’s daughter has already been Skyping with Nadica, an A-SMYLE student from Serbia.
Leigh cherishes the memories she has made with each of her exchange sons and daughters so far, and looks forward to many more.
“Once I was taking two exchange students and two of my daughters up to visit Gatlinburg, and we were driving up a mountain,” reflects Leigh. “The song ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus came on and all four of them started singing it at the top of their lungs. I remember thinking, ‘this is what I do it for, these moments.’”