Hosting a stranger in your home isn’t everyone’s idea of fun or adventure. Parenting is hard enough, but hosting a child who may not speak your language, was raised in an entirely different culture and likely is in the throes of puberty? Good luck.
The Valentine family, however, didn’t need luck. They had the desire, and that was enough. Eric and Meg Valentine have hosted upward of 10 foreign exchange students over the years through the La Grande Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Program, which, along with their two sons, Matt and Michael, made for a full house.
“We both had that experience,” Meg said of studying abroad. “That helped us know how valuable (that experience) could be and we wanted to provide something similar for our boys.”
Both Eric and Meg, now retired, participated in foreign exchange programs in their youth through the International Youth Exchange Organization, formerly known as American Field Service. Eric, originally from Los Angeles, spent his senior year of high school in West Berlin, around 1959-1960 before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meg, from Kansas City, Missouri, traveled to Denmark between her junior and senior years of high school.
After working in the Peace Corps in the South Pacific from 1968 to 1970, the Valentines took the long way home, traveling for seven months across Asia before eventually settling in La Grande and starting their family.
“We had planned to take our children abroad and for a variety of reasons we didn’t, so we decided to bring the world to them,” said Eric of their desire to host exchange students. “This was a way of broadening their horizons and ours as well.”
The family hosted its first student through Rotary around 1974, a girl from Costa Rica, when their youngest son, Michael, was only a year old. The rest, they say, is history.
The Valentines continued hosting students throughout the next two decades, including those from Denmark, Mexico, Japan, Iceland, New Zealand, Switzerland and China.
Host families typically host a student anywhere from a minimum of three months to an entire school year, during which time the Valentines and their sons formed a unique bond with each student, even taking some on trips to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.
“The key element of hosting exchange students is broadening your own family horizons and pushing the envelope outward so you get a feel for how other cultures think and how they view the world,” Eric said. “For us, it’s a real joy to take them places.”
While the experience is mutually beneficial, Meg reflected on how she believes it benefited her sons in particular.
“Having students from a number of different countries and very different cultures we felt was good for the boys as they were growing up,” she said. “They got to know somebody from another country, hear the language (and) learn a few words of the language. We felt that was really valuable.”
Perhaps those experiences paid off. Their son, Matt, participated in two exchanges himself: a summer in Switzerland and a full year in Greece after graduating high school. Their other son, Michael, spent six months in South Africa. Eric and Meg also have a granddaughter who exchanged in Spain.
The couple has managed to keep in touch with many of their students over the years, some through Christmas cards, others who have returned to visit and through visits of their own.
The two have made the journey to Costa Rica, Denmark and, most recently, Iceland, visiting a student they perhaps have the closest relationship with — Disa, who stayed with the Valentines the longest. After losing contact for many years, Disa found one of the Valentines’ sons on Facebook and rekindled their connection. Since then, the Valentines have visited Disa and her husband, and the Icelandic couple came to La Grande to visit the Valentines.
“Basically, Disa is the daughter we never had,” Eric said with a laugh.
See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.