Michael's yearlong stay with Inge, 56, a hair stylist, and her husband Jim, 60, an electrician, turned out to be the first in a string of stints by exchange students. He enlivened the house with his jokes, bonded with Jim over chopping wood and devoured Inge's cherry squirt cake. "He was just what the doctor ordered," Inge says.
For the majority of students like Michael, a trip to study in the U.S. lands them in a household with other school-age children. But a growing number of empty nesters are flinging open their doors to children from around the world. Despite global political turmoil, in the 2003-04 academic year more than 27,000 high school students from countries such as South Korea, Yemen, Uzbekistan and Peru lived with U.S. families, according to the Council on Standards for International Travel, the industry's trade association. Although the number of hosts who are empty nesters is not known, Ted Bennett, president of the Foundation for International Travel, says it is rising. Many, he observes, are boomers who have finished paying college tuition and think, "We have so much to give a child."
Friends of Ann and Richard Morris, 51 and 55, a teacher's aide and a civil servant in Chesapeake, Va., told the couple earlier this year they were nuts to take in a teenager at their stage of life. But they arranged for one anyway from the Center for Cultural Interchange (ICC). "Four bedrooms is too many for us," Ann says. "We need to fill them."
Such older couples can make ideal surrogate parents. They have survived their kids' adolescence and actually want more teenagers at home. They are experienced and confident. If they think it's more fun for their guest to have a "sibling," they host two kids at once.
Besides enjoying the energy of teenagers, these couples savor the foreign flavor their guests bring. Many of the couples are avid travelers who have experienced kindness abroad. As hosts, they feel they're making a small contribution to international understanding. Some, notes Northern Wisconsin AFS Intercultural Programs USA coordinator Amy Myers, were exchange students with the agency (formerly American Field Service) in the 1960s, and feel that they finally have time and space to put up a student.
Some couples who welcome kids year after year even become local representatives for their program. Becky and David Massey, 56 and 58, a food-service director and a factory worker in Oregon, Ohio, are typical. Through the Aspect Foundation, they welcomed kids from Germany, Ecuador and Palestine, among other faraway places. As volunteer representatives, the Masseys enlist host families and mediate any problems that arise during the school year.
Typically, these volunteers match interested families with likely candidates, showing prospective hosts students' applications, letters and photos. Couples with grown daughters may opt for the familiarity of a girlor choose a boy to experience having a son. Elaine Dawkins, 67, a widowed horse rancher in Jerome, Idaho, for example, chose Heidi from Denmark, because the girl belonged to Pony Club, an international equestrian organization for kids.