I am running a slightly edited version of yesterday’s post for the Wednesday stepparenting blog because I think the theme of “hosting a stranger” also applies to stepfamilies.  Your partner’s kids are your brave new frontier. Will you to rise to the challenge? 

One of my loves is to coordinate international exchange students.  I match students from other countries with loving host families and I make sure they have a space in one of the local high schools.  But every once in a while I have to deal with a “situation” that results from some combination of clashing personalities and cultures.   

All the things that happen before the student arrives are very upbeat and exciting.  For example, the matching process is my favorite stage.  Families try to choose a student who will fit in with their family culture and who will share some of their family interests. 

Living out the home stay, however, is a real test of a family’s commitment and communication skills.  Essentially the host family is taking in a stranger – a teenaged stranger – from halfway around the world, and making that person a part of their family for one or two high-school semesters.  

This month, one of my host families called and asked me to remove their student from their home for the rest of March.  The request was couched in a family crisis – the host mom, crux of the family, had contracted pneumonia and needed some down time.  

They gave me about four days notice to find a temporary family.  I usually ask for two to three weeks.  And, they asked right before Spring Break.  Many families go away over Spring Break.  So, the short story is that she’s staying with our family for a little while, and then thankfully a family from her school has volunteered to host her when school is back in session. 

There’s usually more than meets the eye with these situations, and sure enough I came to find out that the family had become extremely stressed because they were annoyed by some of the student’s behaviors.  (Hey, did you know that when you live with someone month after month, your behaviors might annoy each other?) 

For reasons I only partially understand, they let the tension build up so much that the only solution they could see was having a break.  This is why regular communication is so very important in families – all kinds of families.  This is why I blogged about family meetings last week. 

Making a commitment to someone who is not your offspring takes a lot of emotional strength.  Let me admit to you that volunteering my home to the student wasn’t my first inclination.  I made at least fifteen phone calls to find another family to take her in.  I’m her supervisor, and I preferred to preserve that form of our relationship.  I was looking forward to a quiet Spring Break including special time with my little girl. Our family has some financial challenges right now, and I’m trying to find more work, not create new volunteer work.  

But this “stranger,” whom I’ve come to know by supervising her for seven months, is a brave girl who has traveled thousands of miles away from home (at ages 15 – 16) to improve her English and experience an American education.  She didn’t purposely do anything wrong with her host family (and I really believe that now that she’s living with me).  She deserved better communication and a warning to improve some things – a process I as a supervisor can help a family work through if they alert me early on. 

But how do you say “work this out” when you’ve been told that someone is down with pneumonia? 

We are the big people here, folks.  I know sometimes we’re too overwhelmed to step up to our responsibilities.  On the other hand, how long can we wait to follow through and do the right thing?  Can we show enough compassion and communication to expand our definition of the word family in order to make someone who is not a blood relative feel at home?  

To all families who step it up and make this commitment to their exchange students or stepchildren, thank you.  Not only from the bottom of my heart, but from the bottom of their hearts.  Whether the kids see it or not, your compassion changes their lives forever. 

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in Northern Colorado.  For more information on her book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child, go to www.dianefromme.com

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