In 2015, I made a Facebook post lamenting the loss of sleepovers and longing for more girl time. A lady sent me a message and told me that she had a solution for that problem: I could host an exchange student and get plenty of girl time. I laughed as I read the message out loud to my husband, but he wasn’t laughing. Instead, he said, “Why not, babe?” She sent us three profiles of students she thought would be a good fit for our young family. The profiles included a letter written by the student, an interview given by the agency, and a letter from her parents. No photos. We chose Kathrine, a 15-year-old from Denmark who liked to bake cookies, was described as responsible yet goofy, and had a little brother the same age as my oldest son. We submitted our family profile and our background check, and waited on a response from overseas.
We waited the longest 48 hours to hear if she accepted our offer to host, but when the official email arrived, it felt like Christmas. At that point we were allowed to see photos of our new family member, and we laughed a lot over the fact that she looked like she could be my little sister; blue-green eyes, blonde hair, and the same round cheeks.
Because we applied late, the next two weeks were a whirlwind of paperwork, host family orientations and home inspections, and transforming our nursery into a room for a teenage girl. (Did I mention I had a three month old at the time? I was insane).
One day before she was set to start school, we went to the Chattanooga airport to pick her up. We had a lot of feelings that day to say the least. We worried if she’d like us, if we would be too boring, or what if we didn’t like her? What if she hated her room? What if we got ourselves in over our heads? At the same time we were so excited about all we could learn, the opportunity to love someone and share our lives with them. As a mom of three little boys, I was especially excited to have someone with whom to do girly things.
When she walked through the gates, it just felt right.
Of course it was a little awkward, but not as much as I expected. We brought her home where the kids were waiting to meet her. They asked 500 questions and had her perform the ABCs in Danish pretty much immediately. There is no time for slow introductions with little kids, and in a way I think that helped with the transition.
At first, Kathrine was a little quiet and preferred hanging out with my husband who is more introverted. I think my eagerness to please may have been a little much, in hindsight. It didn’t take very long for us to bond though. I now had a shopping partner, a nail stylist, and someone with whom to watch cheesy movies…well, at least part of the movies until she’d pass out. She is a snuggler and I quickly became a human pillow for her many naps. (Language exhaustion is real!) We learned about other cultures and questioned our own. She expanded our world. She loved our children, made us laugh, hogged the bathroom, and made our lives fuller.
We had a few tough times as you’d expect.
We had no idea how to parent a teenager and teenagers are strange creatures in themselves. We were warned that holidays are the worst for homesickness and we found that to be true, and it was hard to watch her go through that and not be able to help very much. Thankfully, those moments were few and far between. We all believe our kids are the best, and that counts for our Danish girl as well. We hit the jackpot.
Letting her go back home was the hardest part of the whole experience. We all sobbed. I almost had it under control while my husband and I were making our way back to the car. Then she called me crying and told me she loved me again, and I think I hardly stopped crying for the next 24 hours. What a precious gift it was that we were able to experience a love that made saying goodbye so difficult.
Kathrine just returned to Denmark after being here with us for two weeks. This was her second visit since her exchange year, and both times she has worked hard to save the money for her trips back here. She brought her beau with her this time and it was a joy to be with them. I feel like a proud big sister watching her transform into this beautiful, intelligent, brave woman.