The Bryan and Tracy Hanke family of Stockbridge and daughters Kylie and Kayla pose with their exchange student living with them this year, Antonia from Austria. The Hankes also hosted Yasmin from New Zealand last year.
The Bryan and Tracy Hanke family of Stockbridge and daughters Kylie and Kayla pose with their exchange student living with them this year, Antonia from Austria. The Hankes also hosted Yasmin from New Zealand last year.

A local program that enables people to come together with mutual respect, promoting personal growth and a positive global perspective is looking for host families in the area.
The STS Foundation, based in Massachusetts allows families to host students from abroad. Senior Local Coordinator Penny Benzschawel and her husband Bob hosted their first student in 2012.

“She change our life,” Benzschawel said. “My husband Bob and I are older and our own children are grown up and have families of their own. At first we thought, we’re too old for this, but we were so wrong.”
Benzschawel said when couples express feelings of being too old to host a student, she tells them the experience will help them feel young again. “We also saw what an impact it had on our student and our own school system and the community,” she added. “I wanted to offer that same experience to other families in the area, students around the world as well as surrounding communities and schools.”

Matching students with families
Benzschawel works to connect American families with students wishing to participate. “My role is to connect American families that would like to open their homes to host a student from another country,” she explained. “I interview and screen families to participate in the STS Foundation program, help them through the application process and provide pre-arrival orientation to vetted host families detailing program objectives and expectations.”
Also provided is the awareness of possible cross-cultural communication, and strategies for dealing with communication challenges between the host family and the student. “I work with and support the family, students and school throughout the student’s entire stay in America.”
To date Benzschawel has connected 25 students with host families and currently have 14 living and attending schools in the area.
Finding hosts families is the biggest challenged faced by Benzschawel in her role with STS. “So many families feel they are too busy or would not, for whatever reason, make a good host family,” she said. “Exchange students come here with very little expectations. They just really want to experience America and everyday life here like going to school, making friends, and being a part of their American family and their everyday life. For most of these students it is a lifelong dream that would never be possible for them if we didn’t have amazing host families.”

Cherished memories
Benzschawel has many warm and funny moments of her interactions with the students and host families. “I could tell you the funniest stories about flat sheets on beds, shopping with exchange student boys, bathroom fixtures and what you really do with toilet paper, rainy birthday parties and muddy hills, students thinking they brought enough warm cloths to live out a Wisconsin winter in warmth, how kissing a Sturgeon brings you good luck and how the word “Foreigner” became a cherished name,” she said. “Just sitting here thinking about my exchange kids brings a tear to my eye. Partly in sadness because I miss everyone one of them but mostly with joy because of how it changed our life and made us better people.”
Benzschawel said hosting a student has a profound impact on those participating as host families. “It will change your life and purpose forever,” she added.
“With the STS Foundation, host families, American high schools, and community leaders have the opportunity to be citizen diplomats, to be actively involved in an international student’s social, emotional and intellectual development,” she continued. “It is educating ourselves as we also help to educate tomorrow’s future leaders, create lifelong friendships and develop strong international relationships.”

Breaking down barriers
“Hosting can break down cultural barriers, and gain respect and understanding of each other’s way of life,” she said.
Benzschawel is currently looking for families interested in becoming a host family for the 2016-2017 school year. “Students will be arriving in late August. We have already received close to 100 applications from students looking to spend a school year in America with many more applications coming in daily.”
“My experience as a Senior Local Coordinator has been rewarding in so many ways,” she shared. “From meeting amazing students from around the world to getting to know so many wonderful loving families that open up their homes and hearts to them. I am blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of so many lives and making lifelong friends around the world.”
“Exchange isn’t just a year in our life, it’s a life in a year,” Benzschawel said.
For more information on the STS Foundation and hosting opportunities, please contact Benzschawel at 849-9517 or by e-mail at pennybenzschawel@msn.com. Additional information on the STS Foundation can be found at www.stsfoundation.org.

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