(Posted May 8, 2023)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
In the not-so-distant past, the only place Bill and Linda Simpson wanted to go for vacation was Arkansas to visit relatives. Now, they want to travel to destinations all across the country and around the world.
The London couple attributes their decision to broaden their horizons to an email Linda received about a decade ago–an email she almost didn’t open.
It started as a typical day at work. Linda, a financial analyst at a local university at the time, was scrolling through her inbox when she came across a message from an unknown sender with information about a non-profit organization she had never heard of.
As her finger hovered over the icon to put “Youth For Understanding” in the trash bin, she paused.
“I don’t know why,” she recalled.
Perhaps it was because the name of the non-profit vaguely reminded her of an ambassadorship her younger daughter joined the year prior. Perhaps it was because she just wanted to know more.
“This random email had me very curious,” she said.
She took the plunge, read what was inside, and was immediately enthralled by the organization’s mission to make a positive impact on the world.
Here’s what Linda learned from that email: In the late 1940s, Michigan native Dr. Rachel Andresen traveled to Denmark to meet her husband’s family. While there, she saw the devastating effects of World War II. She also saw a glimmer of hope for the future at a ceremony to celebrate the city of lights being turned on for the first time in years after an extended blackout. Andresen was determined to “never let the lights go out again.”
Over the next several years, Andresen expanded on Minister John Eberly’s vision of creating a youth exchange program to bring international students to the United States to live with local families and attend high school for a year. The goal was to break stereotypes, cultivate a respect and understanding of different cultures, and build a better foundation for the world.
After reading this, Linda said she felt she couldn’t say “no” to it.
“Until I read that email, I had never even considered being a host family to a foreign exchange student, but I was really intrigued and excited about the prospect,” she said.
Before discussing with Bill the possibility of volunteering as a host family, Linda talked it over with her youngest daughter, Raychel, a student at Franklin Heights High School in Columbus at the time. Linda asked her daughter if she would be comfortable having a foreign exchange student live with them for a year–an important question since Raychel had just become accustomed to the freedom of being the only child in the house as her older sister, Reygan, had recently moved out.
Raychel was immediately on board.
“She was taking French at her high school and really wanted a French exchange student to come here,” Linda said.
Linda and Raychel decided to go full steam ahead with their desire to become a host family.
“It’s hard to say no to that much excitement,” said Bill, who admits he’s usually the naysayer of the family.
After applying to become a host family with Youth For Understanding, the Simpsons completed a vigorous screening process to meet federal requirements. Upon receiving the news they were cleared to host, the Simpsons welcomed Anouck, a 15-year-old Parisian, into their home in 2012.
For Bill, the experience of having a French student in his home for a school year shattered the stereotypes he had heard about people from France.
“I had heard that they were very passive, very liberal, and, you know, sort of rude,” he said.
That was not the case with Anouck, who, Bill said was usually very quiet but always willing to go back and forth with him over their respective viewpoints and lived experiences.
“I think she really opened our minds to new things, and we opened her mind to new things, as well,” he said.
After Anouck returned to Paris, the Simpsons welcomed Hannah from Bavaria the next year and eventually welcomed Stella from China, Lotte from Germany, Numsai from Thailand, and Rikke from Denmark to their home. This fall, they will welcome Luise who lives in Germany. Bill and Linda moved to London last year, so Luise will attend London High School.
Bill and Linda said opening up their home to foreign exchange students has been one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. They get to nurture these students during their time away from their home country and watch them grow and adapt to the changes taking place during this time in their lives.
“We tell them that they are our heroes, and they truly are,” Linda said. “Most of them are 15 or 16 years old, and they’re coming to a new country for 10 months to live with someone they don’t know for those 10 months. Can you imagine doing that? Especially at that age? What they are doing is so brave, and it is such a rewarding experience to be a part of that, to help them adjust and, hopefully, make their time here as good as it can be.”
Since becoming a host family with Youth For Understanding, the Simpsons have credited their student-daughters, as they lovingly call them as, with inspiring them to take more risks and to go on more adventures. Although it is not a requirement for host families to take their exchange students on vacation to see the country, Bill and Linda have done just that. They took Anouck to New York City, Hannah to Myrtle Beach, Rikke and Numsai to Niagara Falls, and Stella to Florida so she could visit Walt Disney World.
Over the past several years, Bill, Linda, and Raychel have taken trips overseas to visit Anouck in Paris, Hannah in Germany and Numsai in Thailand. Numsai’s parents were so appreciative of the Simpsons hosting their daughter that they paid for a boat tour and took them to an elephant sanctuary where they got to bathe the gentle pachyderms.
“It was one of the most profound trips I have ever been on,” Bill said.
Because they have had such a great experience volunteering as a host family, Bill and Linda have begun recruiting families across the region to consider taking a leap of faith and hosting a foreign exchange student.
Linda will be out and about at fairs and festivals in Franklin and Madison counties this spring and summer to talk about Youth For Understanding, to share her stories, and to hopefully inspire others to follow in her and Bill’s footsteps.
“I am so glad I opened that email and decided to take the plunge,” she said.
According to Jamie Withem, a community manager who oversees Ohio for Youth For Understanding, the non-profit organization is looking for host families of all kinds. She said it doesn’t matter if you have children, if you are single, an empty-nester, or a same-sex couple; if you believe you would be a good family or person to host a foreign exchange student, you should give it some consideration.
“It can be hard and it can be fun, but I feel it is always worth it because you really are making a difference in the world,” she said.
To learn more about Youth For Understanding, visit yfuusa.org. Withem said questions can be sent to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (419) 972-5993.