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‘They will always have a place in your heart’
Host families sought for 2011-12 foreign exchange students

by Susan Bromley

June 22, 2011

From left: Marie, a German exchange student, with Journey Timmermans of Ortonville.
Brenda Timmermans always wanted six children. Her husband, Jos, wanted none. Their compromise is their only child, daughter Journey, 8.

However, Brenda Timmermans found a way to give Journey a sibling, as well as expose her child to other cultures. Since 2007, she has "adopted" three children for nine months each as a host mom for foreign exchange students.

"What I like about hosting a foreign exchange student is you can have a relationship with them for the rest of your life, but still send them back home," she laughs. "It's still difficult, because you're raising a teenager for a year, but even if it seems to not work out, even if you have one for just four months, the releationship is so intense, they will always have a place in your heart."

Timmermans should know. Her first exchange student in 2007, a girl named Birte from Germany, ran away after four months. Birte stayed with a neighbor for a few months, then went to another home. The Timmermans skipped hosting for a year, then in 2009, gave it another try with another German girl, Marie. That year was more successful and Marie and Journey bonded very closely. This school year, the Timmermans hosted Katrine, an exchange student from Norway. Again, they dealt with the challenges of guiding a teenager.

"Yes, it was hard, but if something is hard, you gain more," Timmermans said. "It was a tough year, but I will cry when she leaves. I will miss her. And I know I gave her something extra that her parents could never give her— I gave her a different life and she got to live with me for a year and share with me, it enriches her life as much as it does mine. It's a win-win situation in all aspects, even if it doesn't work out the way you thought."

The Timmermans are natives of the Netherlands and besides giving Journey a sibling, were motivated to become a host family for foreign exchange students to expose their daughter to other cultures.

"We want her to understand where we come from, that there's more than just the United States and we also wanted to give another child the opportunity to experience the American culture," she said.

Barb Kilkka, the Oakland County field director for Youth for Understanding USA, which facilitates exchanges of students between the U.S. and 60 other countries, hopes that more Brandon families will open their homes and hearts to a student from another nation.

"It would be nice to place four kids at Brandon High School, which is what we had last year," she said. "Our goal is to place 70 in Oakland County. We had 80 last year."

Kilkka has a paragraph of information on each teen available for an Oakland County home. There is Athar, a 15-year-old from Pakistan who enjoys basketball, cricket, soccer, and jogging, as well as drama, reading, writing, and playing computer games. Magda, 17, from Poland "feels "honored" to have the chance to become part of an American family" and "is excited about the possibility of doing sports at an American high school. Her teacher says that one of her best qualities is being "sensitive to the happiness of others.""

Dozens of other students come from Germany, Italy, Japan, China and more, all with the dream of living and studying in America for the year.

Timmermans said people seem to have a lot of reasons not to host— they are leery of having a stranger in their home, they are concerned about a financial burden. But she urges families to give it a try.

"A lot of people are struggling and feel like they can't do it, but my husband was without a job for 10 months when we had Marie and it didn't hurt us a bit," she said. "You don't have to have a lot, you just need to have each other... We made such a big difference in her life, without doing much, just offering her a home and a loving family."

Not much more than a home and a loving family is necessary to host a foreign exchange student. Host families must apply and will undergo a background check and home visit. They must not be receiving an government subsidies, but otherwise, host families come in all shapes and sizes. Retirees and individuals can host an exchange student, as well as families with children of all ages. Exchange students are permitted to share a room with a host sibling as long as they are the same gender. Host families provide a home and three meals a day for their student, but extravagant vacations or entertainment is not necessary, and students bring their own spending money with them.

"The trick is when you host, you don't need to fuss a lot," said Kilkka. "You live your normal life and include them in it. You're not an entertainer, you just open up a life and opportunity to them. Your own children benefit because you're natural with them about it, too."

Kilkka has four children of her own, and has 20 more children all over the world, ones that call her "Mom" and who she communicates with regularly.

"For my family and our kids, this was our ticket to the world," she said. "My kids totally accept other people. It doesn't matter if a child is from Finland, Denmark, Japan, Argentina. We have gained as much as the student has gained. As parents, the child we receive in August so different from the child we send home in June. We see our influence written all over them. Foreign exchange builds bridges between cultures. It changes the world. A person in a small town can make a difference in how other countries look at each other."

Although Timmermans had a few "not-so-good" experiences, her runaway Birte came to visit last summer and told her host family she should have never left.

The challenge of raising teenagers has not deterred Timmermans. In August, she will welcome Estee, an exchange student from France.

For more information on hosting an international exchange student, contact Kilkka at 248-932-0811 or visit