Devote Yourself to creating something that gives you purpose . . .

"So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

Tuesdays with Morrie, author Mitch Albom

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Making Connections

A business venture isn’t always about how much money is to be made, but sometimes it is about having a passion for what you do. Kari Paul, is an International Student Exchange representative has the responsibility to match school systems, families and students together. She is working for I.S.E., International Student Exchange, a non-profit organization. She has defined her area as, and she has currently been in touch with schools in Spring Lake, Grand Haven, Allendale, Coopersville, Fruitport, West Olive, Holland, and Muskegon.

Several years ago, Kari traveled, by train to Chicago with her two daughters and her mother-in-law and this is when she first learned about this program. She met a coordinator who was escorting students on a field trip; by asking questions, Kari learned what hosting a child was all about. In the 2008-09 school year her family hosted a girl from Spain. This young lady became an integral part of their family for ten months and when the time arrived for her to return home, the entire family and extended family shared a tearful goodbye. Kari said “I love being a mom, that’s what I do, and this child was as significant to me as one of my own.” Her philosophy is “If you’re not bring a child into your home for the right reasons, then don’t do it.” “Hosting a child has been the one of the most rewarding experience in our lives”, she said between tears as she thinks back on her first experience a year ago. Now she is hosting her second student.

When asked to be a representative to the Mid-Central region, Kari said that she didn’t hesitate to say yes when she learned that three people have held this position in the past two years. What makes this position right for her is that she is eager to get out and shake hands and get to know people both in her community as well as those adjoining Spring Lake school district. She said last week I called or emailed ten Principals in various school districts and of those ten she has already made appointments with three. Thirty percent response rate is incredible. What is difficult for her is getting to know families within the various school districts. Matching students from 55 different countries with families outside of her immediate school district has been the challenge. Already this school year 48 countries have allowed students into the U.S. and between Kent and Ottawa counties, 46 students have been placed.

Students between the ages of 14 and 18 are allowed to come to the U.S. through this program, to pursue their education. This however, is not only about education, but it is also important to give students the experience of what it is like to be an American teenager. It is not all about cracking the books, but experiencing life with activities like going to sporting events, school dances, live concerts, you name it. Kari said they try not to place students in schools where they might easily integrate with students that speak their own language such as placing a Spanish student in schools with a large Hispanic population. It is about integrating them into schools, exchanging customs, and perfecting their English. Some countries will validate the education that is received here in the states and others may not; a student may find that they have to go to school an additional year in their home country to graduate, but the experience is worth it to them. Once their ten months is up, they are required to return home. If the student chooses to come back for a visit, they have to go through normal channels like anyone else traveling abroad, including obtaining a visa, and making their own travel arrangements.

Exchange students are held to a very high standards, if they are caught doing something unlawful and even associated with activities that are outside of the guidelines provided by I.S.E., they can be sent back home and not allowed to complete their exchange student experience. Some students will arrive in January rather than late summer to start their educational program, but this works best with schools that operate on a semester basis. Many schools in our area run on trimesters which require a student to start at the beginning of a school year.

As Kari makes contact with a family who might be willing to become a host family, she will show them limited information about the student, but she waits until an application has been completed, a background check has occurred, and a home study interview has taken place. One policy that Kari shared is that it’s okay if the exchange student shares a room with another family member, but that they must have their own bed. Kari indicated that once a family has been through the review process that she is able to share more details about a specific student with them. This may include family information, student interests, family photos, etc. She says it is important for everyone concerned that the placement is a success. She gave an example of a pet owner expressing an interest in a specific student who has pet allergies; she could never make a match in an environment that would not be suitable to the student involved. She also serves as mediator, if needed for families who find matters that my come up once placement has occurred. She is an active part of the student and family during the exchange students stay in the United States.

Kari is excited about meeting school administrators, and finding schools willing to take exchange students. Every school is different; some schools are willing to take as many students as she can find host families for; whereas other school districts limit the number they will take. Some schools may take more than one student from the same country; whereas other schools want to create greater diversity. Kari is challenged by thinking of creative ways to meet and greet families from other school districts. She understands the importance of keeping family information close at hand as most schools do, so she has been requesting opportunities to speak at parent meetings, or through booster clubs. She will also consider speaking to churches to find families willing to host. If you are reading this post and have any interest in helping Kari make these connections or know of opportunities where she may speak, please contact her at 616-296-0121 or through email at

I found it very inspiring to speak with Kari, who also happens to be my neighbor; she truly has a passion for what she is doing, and I would love to see the impact she can make in our community taking on this new role. She says “I hope to place 14 students in and around our community by next school year.”

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