We really felt it was God’s hand in the whole thing. It was so good to channel into someone else when such a horrible thing had happened…and it has been a fabulous experience!

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You don’t necessarily have to have planned to host an international student. It can be a great experience, even if it happens unexpectedly and serendipitously, like it did to Rachel and Jim Nykerk.

The year before, Rachel and Jim had unexpectedly lost their adult son, and were working through heavy grief when a woman approached Rachel in her front yard, asking if she would want to house an international student. That her neighbor across the street had recommended them. “And I never do yard work out front,” Rachel said—plus she had never thought before about hosting an international student, even though her good friends had done it before and had very positive experiences. They signed up, and made room for their Chinese student, Jimmy, to move in and take over their basement. “God had to have had His hand in it for Jimmy and us,” Rachel explained. “We really felt it was God’s hand in the whole thing. It was so good to channel into someone else when such a horrible thing had happened…and it has been a fabulous experience!”

You don’t have to have a history with anything international. Because the school does, and our new International Program Coordinator Amanda Schwass does (she spent her high school years studying in Germany). And the kids are really glad to be here, whatever your international experience. Holland Christian started its official international student program about 15 years ago, after it kept getting requests from so many exchange programs to allow international students into HC. Amanda works with international home agencies to “get an idea of incoming students’ backgrounds and personalities” then pairs them “with host families based on home environment, interest and requests as best as possible (some students want host siblings and pets, others may specifically request no cats or young children, etc.),” she said. “Host families commit to one year of hosting, but often when the match works, they will continue to host their student for their entire time at Holland Christian!”

Plus Amanda and her team plan a variety of social events throughout the year, and are there for you if you need anything. In the past there have been events like tailgating at football games, cookouts, hayrides, bonfires, family fun nights, but she’s also there for any questions, concerns, coaching, even counseling arrangements, if needed.

There is no such thing as a perfect home or family for hosting, so you don’t have to worry about being perfect. “Different students have different personalities and backgrounds, so any home—from empty nesters to a home busting with school aged children and pets—could provide the right environment for the right student!” Amanda explained. “My favorite are the stories I hear about international students who continue to visit their host families years after graduating Holland Christian. There are host families who have built such special relationships that they’ve made the trip to home countries to meet families and experience cultures first hand.”

Sandy Kuipers and her husband are one of those host families, having hosted students for 15 years, starting with the Holland Rotary Club before HC even had international students. She’s been to Brazil, Japan, and Korea to visit past international students, hosted their full families when they came for graduation. “I get excited because I’ve had some of the best experiences with some of these kids that you could hope for,” she said, while relating the story of their first exchange student from Brazil, Dolly, whose med school graduation Sandy recently attended in Brazil. “I didn’t understand a stinking word!” But during the graduation when all the graduates were told to go thank their parents during the ceremony, Dolly went all the way to the back of the room to give her a hug and thank her.

Though “There were other kids in between that that kind of relationship never developed,” Sandy added. So that kind of relationship doesn’t happen with every kid, or with every family, and you don’t have to feel pressured to have that kind of relationship either!

You do have to plan to do some kid carting, though carpooling is certainly possible. Every morning Rachel took Jimmy to school on her way to work, since she works near HCHS, then either picked him up herself after school, or arranged for her sister or her husband to pick him up. “But other host parents were so supportive,” she said. “Everybody helps with rides, if you’re busy or gone.”

You can cook what you always cook for dinner at home. But it is nice to ask your international student what their preferences are—just like your own kids. And maybe cook some of that sometimes. “I tell them if you don’t like it, be honest. Otherwise you’re going to get it again!” said Sandy. “Communication is huge!” added Rachel. “Sitting down with Jimmy right away, finding his likes and dislikes right away, what kind of foods he likes was very helpful.” For example, he did not like American Chinese food, but did like Holland’s northside Lemongrass Restaurant, so they would get take out from there about once a week “to give him something he likes.” And yes, your own children may come back to haunt you: “Boy mom, you never gave us this many options!” Rachel said her sons teased her.

International students typically study a lot, so you don’t have to do a whole lot of entertaining. “There’s so much pressure put on those kids to succeed,” Rachel said, who was surprised by how much their international student studied. “I had thought he would want to have more experiences.” But it is nice to take them on a few excursions, when or if possible. Sandy Kuipers always asks to have two girls, if possible, but definitely girls, since she always “wanted to do girl things with them” and has often taken her girls on an overnight shopping trip to Chicago.

You don’t have to host large kid gatherings—but it sure can be fun if you do. “We were used to having lots of kids around, from when our kids were home—they played football, baseball, hung out with their teams,” Rachel said. “Because Jimmy had so much space, he often had other international kids over to make their own food and hangout. It was really fun—my basement was full of laughter again.”

You don’t have to be a techie, but using “WeChat,” the Chinese version of Facebook is a helpful way to reassure the students’ parents how they are doing. “Because you know boys—they don’t send pictures,” Rachel said. “I found it really helpful, to reassure Mom and Dad.” Another host family, the Halmas, also found WeChat helpful: “Ryan talks to his parents almost every night via WeChat. We sometimes jump onto the call for a moment to say hi,” Leanne Halma said. “We also email to send updates to his family and photos of what we have been doing. Ryan’s entire family came to visit us this August, so I think the communication will only deepen this year. Their family is becoming an extension of our own.”

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We were used to having lots of kids around, from when our kids were home. Jimmy  often had other international kids over to make their own food and hangout. It was really fun—my basement was full of laughter again.

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Don’t expect everything to be perfect. “The reality is, you’re dealing with teenagers,” said Courtney Lampen, HCS Director of Admissions and Marketing, who also works with admissions for international students. “And it takes a special kind of student at 14 or 15 to be prepared to live with a host family, do 7-8 hours of school in another language. But we have supports in place for the kids and for the host family including how to parent someone from another culture where English is not their first language.” “It takes a lot of patience,” added Leanne, “but it’s been really fun.”

Know that language can be both a bit of a barrier, but also a joy-creator, as Rachel explained: “Jimmy has a great sense of humor, and we’ve had a lot of funny things with language,” she said. “I talk fast, and I speak too quickly…I had to learn to slow down.”

You can include your extended family, too—though the international kids may be a bit overwhelmed at first, they typically enjoy extended family gatherings Rachel said. Her sister, who lives with Rachel and her husband enjoyed having Jimmy with them, and “My sons got a kick out of Jimmy too—they teased me about how I treated him better than them. But they know they were spoiled, too—good spoiled!” Rachel said. “The biggest thing they need is to feel like they’re at home. You have to treat them like your own kids—they can’t feel like a guest,” said Sandy, who often invites her children and grandchildren over to mingle with her international students

Some international students go away on vacation with their host families, and some of them go to visit other friends elsewhere, or even plan their own vacations with friends. So you don’t have to stress about it either way. “We considered Ryan part of our family, so we never thought twice about traveling with him,” said Leanne. “What we really wanted was to give him some experiences outside of Holland, so heading to Florida for spring break was a great time for us and him. We also took a couple of trips to Cincinnati. He’s from a bigger city in China, so he loved it there.”

Our hope is that you will find yourself unexpectedly blessed as an international parent. “I needed it as much as Jimmy needed it,” Rachel said. “It was good doing something good for somebody else—I was too absorbed in my own grief.” After she got to know Jimmy a bit, Rachel said she explained to him that her son had died recently, and that if he saw her crying, not to worry, and they came up with a code word to help ease the situation. Now that she looks back on the school year they had together, and the unexpected way it all started, she reflects, “How could God not have had His hand in all these little events?!”

“I did it because we really loved it—love to travel, love to learn about other countries,” Sandy added. “The goodbyes were always really hard!” Plus our school system is blessed by their presence here, their welcome in your homes: “I think our [HC] students need to see there’s a whole other world out there—it opens a new world for them,” Rachel said.

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I did it because we really loved it—love to travel, love to learn about other countries. The goodbyes were always really hard!