Host Families Sought for Foreign Exchange Students

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The pandemic has had a negative effect on getting the word out, but the program is still operating.

While international travel has been severely restricted for more than a year, foreign exchange student programs have continued their efforts to promote international understanding. In the Roanoke Valley, Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG), a program of the State Department, is having more difficulty telling potential hosts that it is still working than it is in getting students across international borders.

Chapter Leader Roni Sutton says emphatically, “The program is still open. We have students who want to come to the U.S. and we want to offer families the contact information should they want to host. As a mom who has hosted 13 students, I can’t say enough how fulfilling it is.”

Freeda Cathcart is the new local coordinator, responsible for recruiting and vetting host families, working with schools and supporting students upon arrival in our area. Sutton is responsible for hiring local coordinators all over the country and supporting them as they find families for students.

Sutton says that “while last year was challenging, FLAG did have students placed in homes and schools. Like American students, they experienced a variety of school types from completely virtual to hybrid to schools in session most of the year. The hardest part about placement this year has been finding host families and schools willing to open their doors.”

Eligible hosts include “anyone who can pass a criminal background check, is not on public assistance and who has a bed in a bedroom with a door,” says Sutton. “Students can share a bedroom with a host sibling who is roughly their age or younger but may not share a bed.”

There are no rules regarding race, religion or sexual orientation, but students’ families will be informed of special circumstances and they will choose where they stay. Families provide meals.

Sutton says that a significant hurdle at the moment is finding schools that will accept foreign students. “For example,” she says, “Bedford County has decided not to accept any students at all in 2021-2022. Other local school districts will be accepting students. This directly impacts me because I would like to host next year, but because I live in Bedford County, I cannot.  It is deeply disappointing.”

Cathcart emphasizes that “the purpose of the program is to build international relationships, to build bridges beyond the posturing of governments. The challenge is getting the word out. Normally, I’m out among community, civic and church groups so I can hand out brochures. The pandemic has limited that.”

Michael and Meilii Halfmann of Roanoke have been consistent hosts for international students for years and believe the program has benefitted both them and their children significantly. “We wanted to give our own kids the opportunity to interact with kids from all over the world,” says Michael Halfmann. “We couldn’t afford to take the kids to the world, so we brought the world to them. We stay in contact with most of the kids we’ve hosted, expanding our family all over the world.

“Our own daughter spent a summer in South Korea and our kids are more well-rounded because of the program.”

“Hosting has had a profound impact on my family in ways that I would never have guessed,” says Sutton. “I can proudly say that I am not the mother of three, but the mother of many. I would gladly accept any of my foreign exchange students back into my home should they want to immigrate.”

You may reach Roni Sutton at 540-947-5228 or [email protected] and Freeda Cathcart at 540-598-7231 or [email protected] for more information.

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