St. Louis area struggles to host exchange students

Saturday, August 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Call after call, the apologetic reasons were the same. Denise Cunningham would cross the name off her list of potential families for exchange students and move on to the next.

Some said one parent had been laid off. Others feared job loss. Concerns were raised about another mouth to feed.

The shaky economy made for a challenging recruitment year for exchange programs, many of which rely mostly on volunteers to find families willing to open up their homes — and their wallets, — to take on an international student.

Across the country and in St. Louis, many families simply had to say no this year.

"We didn't have as many people who stepped forward early on," said Cunningham, an area volunteer with AFS Intercultural Programs, which has 36 exchange students that arrived this month in St. Louis. "A lot of people lost jobs or have the fear that they are going to lose their jobs. They don't want to have to leave a student stranded if something happens."

AFS, which places a total of 2,800 students from abroad with U.S. families each year, knew this would be a difficult year. That's why representatives started looking for families earlier than usual, said Kristen Bates, chief program officer for hosting.

Another exchange student program, Youth for Understanding, said it also faced difficulties in finding host families because of tough economic times. Last year was also challenging because of high food and fuel prices, officials said.

"Lots of families just aren't comfortable taking on another son or daughter," said Neil Routman, spokesman for Youth for Understanding, which has about 15 students in the St. Louis area this year and about 2,000 nationwide. "We've had to ask more people than in years past."

Elsewhere in the country, some schools dealing with budget cuts, crowded classrooms and fewer teachers have been hesitant about bringing an exchange student in when resources are limited.

Typically, most programs require host parents to take on the expense of the student living in their home, including meals at home and at school. After that, it varies with each family to determine who pays for clothes, sightseeing or other expenses.

"People, I think out of fear or trepidation financially, want to make sure they could provide an excellent experience for the student," Bates said. "But it's really about the personal emotional relationships that people make. They're lifelong."

Although host families who felt comfortable with the financial commitment were harder to find, AFS was still able to bring about the same number of students to the United States this year, Bates said. But even with all the extra effort by AFS volunteers, a few students are staying with "welcome families" for two to eight weeks until a permanent one is found. And some are arriving later, staying in their home countries a few extra weeks until families could be found. It's a situation AFS desperately tries to avoid.

The AFS program in St. Louis is not having any second-arrival students but did place some with host families just in time for their arrival here this month — including one the week he landed. That's not an ideal situation because it doesn't give the student and his or her U.S. family time to develop a relationship by phone or e-mail before arriving, Cunningham said.

Only a few of the St. Louis AFS students are staying with welcome families. And many of those placements become permanent because the family often grows close to the student during those initial welcome weeks .

Several days before the St. Louis AFS students arrived, Cunningham decided to be a "welcome family" for a 16-year-old girl from Kyrgyzstan.

"It was that or she didn't get to come," said Cunningham, whose family just hosted a German exchange student last year. "I couldn't let that happen."


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