"Don't talk to strangers."
"Don't go into someone's home if you don't know them."
'There are a lot of weirdos out there."
All those statements may well be true - I'm not here to dispute them. However, I want to share my experiences over the last two weeks, meeting over a dozen strangers and entering their homes during my search for families who were interested in making a commitment to hosting international high school students from China. It's been the kind of adventure that could give rise to new sayings, if fear weren't such a strong presence in our lives.
When I envisioned looking for and finding families to host international high school students, I assumed that they'd all be connected to people I knew. I sent out dozens of emails to dozens of nice people, all of whom have large networks of friends and associates. I thought the phone would soon start ringing and friends of my friends would call and invite me over to talk to them about hosting.
Instead, the inquiries came almost exclusively from ads on Craigslist. My limited connection with Craigslist prior to July was that it was a place I could possibly get a yard sale type item, but the quality of what I found there was mixed, and it was bringing me large amounts of spam and small numbers of real inquiries about a house I hoped to rent steadily this summer. A mixed review, to say the least.
However, there has been nothing mixed about the kindness and generosity of the people I've met through Craigslist these past few weeks. As a group, they make a "typical American family." As individuals, there's no such thing as a typical family and each has something so special and endearing to offer an international student that I can't imagine how the students will choose.
Some homes are spacious, on large plots of land, with shiny furnishings and not a pin out of place. Others are smaller, cozier, even messier, but neither appearance predicts the time the family spends playing games together, going to the pool to cool down in the heat wave, hosting all the kids in the neighborhood, or just enjoying each other's company.
Either way, I show up without official credentials, carrying a green paper folder, an interview packet, a purple or green pen, and a large, imposing camera and find myself graciously ushered in and invited to have something cool to drink while we sit and chat. We talk about issues that may arise during hosting, and to each question, the hosts give their most thoughtful responses, reflecting what they know about their own lives, the kids they are currently raising or the ones they raised years ago.
My biggest concern was that the Craigslist ad mentions money right in the title of the ad, to draw readers. I assumed that would bring out people who cared first about money and second about becoming at least temporary parental figures for a youth from a far away and foreign culture. In fact, almost none of the people even mentioned money, until I brought up something related to expenses, such as mentioning that the students need to own a computer and that they would pay for it themselves. Even then, families did not linger on the topic.
Ninety five percent of the concerns and interests of the families have been how to make sure the student feels included, welcomed, comfortable and able to thrive in their school community, neighborhoods, and homes. Most of the families have a member who well remembers the experience of adjusting to a new culture and the difficulty of expressing him/herself in a new language. The others have connected professionally or socially with people who have experienced those adjustments and are sensitive and aware of how much gentle and patient help is needed.
No one has blanched at hearing that they may need to show the student how to clean a bathroom or load a dishwasher or said that transporting another child to another set of activities, on top of the baseball-soccer-dancing-religion-music lessons that already enrich their own families' lives is too much to expect. In fact, rather than feeling overwhelmed to hear that the students will become family members, not boarders in their homes, these families rejoice, for that is precisely what they want, whether their own children are grown up and out of the house or whether they have four children prancing through the house and planting wet kisses on their cheeks as we speak.
I wonder if people knew that you could meet such loving and generous people through something as random as a Craigslist ad, if they would still have to feel so alone and discouraged about the world out there. I feel lucky to have met each family that I've met and hope that if they are chosen to host a student, the experience is all they wish for. The news is filled with the terrible things that happen, but I bet a lot more of this kind of thing happens every day, but just doesn't count as "news." It's news to me!