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This is my fourth year working at IRIS, so I’ve seen a lot of students and a lot of host families come and go. Some people only plan to host once, and then they are done. Some think that, but they fall in love with the experience and end up hosting again. And some people just have a spot in their soul for exchange students, and they do it over and over again, year after year. 

For the most part, IRIS’s YES students are phenomenal. I can’t imagine hosting from any other program, and that’s not just because I’m biased. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Youth Exchange & Study students come from different countries and different backgrounds. When I was in high school, the exchange students were always from affluent countries or families. And good for them – it’s great that they can afford the experience. But YES kids are from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. They are kids who would likely never be able to afford this type of opportunity through the numerous for-fee/pay-your-way programs. YES is a scholarship, and I like that.
  • YES students give back. Since this is a scholarship, YES asks that the students give back to their communities. The students are required to do a minimum of 2 hours of community service each month, but many of IRIS’s YES students have accomplished much more; last year, we had over 10 students complete over 100 hours of community service during their 10 month stay in Iowa communities. That’s awesome!
  • YES students build bridges of understanding. Since they come from countries that Americans don’t often travel to, their presence in American schools for an academic year gives those schools and communities an opportunity to learn about more remote regions, colorful cultures, and new perspectives. And the students are encouraged to do cultural presentations throughout their stay. Plus, the bridge goes both ways – these students often fall in love with their host, community, and America, and bring that love back home with them. This promotes peace and understanding in their home countries, too.

Many people are somehow under the impression that all the exchange students who come to America each year are all basically the same. But it’s really important to do some research before choosing an organization (like IRIS) and a program (like YES). Almost all exchange organizations and programs are FOR PROFIT. That means that the student is paying the organization – usually a lot – to come to America. Because they pay, they often have high expectations and not as much interest in giving back. After all, they paid a lot of money for the program. And I’m not saying all students who come this way don’t deserve it. Many do! But there is a huge difference between people who know they will have the opportunity to travel to American again someday, and those who know that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Hosting through programs like the YES program really does become a life changing experience for the students who are chosen. They do over a year of tests and interviews, orientations and planning sessions, before they arrive in your home. They are eager to learn and eager to teach. They want to show their graciousness and thankfulness for the opportunity, and they want to make the most out of everything – as it will more than likely be their one chance to travel to America (maybe even their only chance to travel abroad in their whole life). Not every YES student is perfect, but I’d say 98% of the YES students I’ve met have spend their ten months trying very hard to have a great experience and be a full member of their host family and community. 

And as a host, I think it’s great to feel so very supported. IRIS has been working with the State Department’s YES program since its inception, so they know the ropes. They come up with activities throughout the year to bring all of their students together for team building and cultural events. Local coordinators make regular phone calls to hosts, students, and schools, and make sure things are going smoothly – and they actually help whenever there is a need. And since IRIS is an Iowa based organization working almost exclusively within the state, the families and students become part of a large network that help each other and support each other throughout the year. 

So yeah, I’m a little biased. But if I didn’t believe in this program, and didn’t respect this organization, I wouldn’t have come back to IRIS after living abroad for three years. I’m glad to work here, and now I’m glad to volunteer as a host parent, too.

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I’m 28 years old. Steven is 31. Almost all of our friends are having babies.

“You better hurry up!”

“When are you going to start?”

“Don’t wait too long!”

For years, I’ve found these often well-meaning comments to be frustrating. Don’t worry, friends and family – I am fully aware of my biological clock, and either it is broken or it’s just not ticking quite yet. Either way… stop pestering me!

Last spring, Steven and I bought a house. That was a milestone we’d been looking forward to for years. And with the purchase of our first home, we realized that we wanted to fill the extra bedroom. So we decided to have a kid.

“We’re going to be parents!” we exclaimed to our friends last spring. Their faces lit up. “We’re hosting an exchange student!” Their faces froze.

“Oh!”

“An exchange student!”

“That’s… awesome!”

And yes, it is. It’s awesome.

Steven and I lived in South Korea for three years, and ever since returning to America, we’ve really missed the international, intercultural relationships that we had abroad. As English teachers, we were always around young people, always learning from them and teaching them about our culture. We wanted that back. Hosting an exchange student seemed like a perfect way to fulfill that hole in our hearts.

Over the summer, we were able to Facebook, e-mail, and Skype with our student, Jude, and her family. We got to know her before she even arrived – and the moment I saw her in real life, we threw our arms around each other and hugged like we’d been family forever. And, just like that, we really were a family.

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Jude fits so well with us. She has a perfect sense of humor. She is sarcastic with Steven but cuddly with me. She is very motivated. She is so much more mature than I was at her age, and she’s constantly teaching me about her home country, politics, and religion. She is open minded and thoughtful, gracious and silly.

Every morning, Steven takes her to school. She is in orchestra, debate team, and will soon join Model UN. She has attended school events, and still makes time every night to do her homework and hang out with us. We cook together, clean together, shop together, and travel together. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but we really are parents, and we love our daughter so much already.

I hope to keep blogging throughout the year about our experience hosting Jude. For now, I just want to say this. You are never too young, too old, or too busy to host an exchange student. I work at Iowa Resource for International Service, the organization that was responsible for placing Jude with a host family in Iowa. I’ve wanted to host for years, as most of the students through Jude’s program, Youth Exchange & Study, are the most amazing, active, insightful, and mature high schoolers that I have ever met. And I’ve asked almost everyone I know to host a student too. I decided to walk the walk this year, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. I want everyone to be able to experience hosting one of these students, so I hope that this blog will help convince some of you to go for it. 

Jude, if you’re reading this – we love having you and I have already cried once thinking about how you will leave in June. Also, is your homework finished?

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Father’s Day for the fatherless is probably what Christmas is like to a non-christian… I know people were enjoying it, but I sure wasn’t.

I miss my dad, but it was really nice having my mom retell stories all day about our family back when I was a baby. But not quite the same as what the rest of you got to do today, so please, don’t take a minute of your time with your dad or those you love for granted.

This past weekend my brother and I returned to our childhood home to pack up our things. My grandparents, who bought the home from our family in 2000 and have been living there since 2004, had finally decided that there weren’t enough (or rather, any) relatives living in the area anymore for them to continue living there either, and had sold the house. When they bought the house from us, we moved into the town where I was going to high school and my brother to middle school. That town is Akron, Iowa.

My grandparents house/my childhood home sits on a hill in the south-eastern most county of South Dakota, and I had gone to elementary and junior high in the closest town, Alcester. The house sits on three acres surrounded by miles of farmland in all directions. Our land has been combed over and over by my brother and me through one million adventures in our childhood. We rode the riding lawn mower over every inch of it in the summer; the horse I’d owned for a year had inhabited the acre in the back, where I’d gone out every afternoon to clean and feed her. The apple orchard to the south of the house is where we’d picked fruit for cobblers and pies and sauces. There had been gardens and discovered wild strawberry patches, a fallen tree with a family of baby raccoons, and acres that seemed like miles of land to roam while playing gypsies. It was more than a home – it was nutritious soil to develop our creativity and resourcefulness.

The house itself and the enormous garage next to it, as well as the towering metal windmill with its deep ground water well, had all been built by some relative on my dad’s side. The house is very big, with secret rooms and small curious doors hidden behind closets and in the corner of the nursery. It’s a unique house, and I remember when we moved in when I was 8, we had to repaint the whole house because every room was a different Easter Egg pastel. The upstairs is all hardwood, and would echo with laughter and shouting between my brother’s room and mine. The main floor was warm and bright with window-covered walls. My dad thought himself a wall-papering master, so a few of the rooms had been covered with whatever he considered trendy at the time. My grandparents, who remodeled and updated the whole house when they moved in, had to recover the walls to their taste, too. Now the house is simple and classic and clean. All wood floors except in the living rooms and main bedroom, where thick white carpet is laid. The walls are a soft white or pale green, and all new appliances rest where our older versions used to reside. The windows, heating/cooling, roof, and doors were all replaced when they moved in.

And yet, it’s still been home every weekend when I could wander back from college. It’s where my dad lived for a while after my parents got divorced. It’s where the family convened for activities. It’s the only home I’ve had in the area since my mom and dad both moved away a few years ago, and it’s where preparations for both weddings and funerals have taken place. It’s where both of my dogs are buried. The rocks sing of thunder storms and hard lessons learned and first crushes and painful memories and laughter and birthdays and Christmases and monkey bread and radiator heat and directorial debuts on our home video camera all took place. In the summer, fire flies sparkle the corn and bean fields and our back yard each warm, muggy night. The grass is still spotty where our hammock swing used to hang from a tree. The clothes line was there when we moved in, and it still gets used. The north porch is beautiful, and nobody ever used it, except to play house in the summer sometimes. When we moved there, my dad unearthed old wooden wagon wheels and bits and pieces of objects left behind by someone from the 1800s. The mulberry tree died and is gone, which was a shame because I used to stain my feet and fingers plucking black, bleeding mulberries and sour red mulberries alike from the tree.

I fear the ghost of my father still treads the grounds, throwing a baseball, starting a fire, mowing the lawn, thinking, joking, laughing. Of all the things, it’s his ghost I don’t want to leave behind.

My memories of my life, my childhood, my family, my lessons, my growth, all embody themselves in some way on this land. Memory recall has imprinted itself into every corner and every floorboard and every squirrel and strand of grass and apple and cloud of dust off the gravel road and coil of smoke from a bonfire and roll of thunder and scent of life and death and ray of heat or blow of snow at 30706 480th Ave. These things created me, and are the soap scum residue that I can’t and won’t ever be able to scrub from my skin and being and soul. It’s this place, this house and land, that acts like a time capsule or treasure chest or memory box, holding it all together so I can come back and stand under its shower of memories whenever I forget who I am and need to be poured down on again with the saltiness of memories. So I wonder – if I can’t bathe myself in memories anymore, can’t use the replay of lessons and moments from way back when to wash away the hard new lessons of the hear and now – when I can’t wander home, climb into bed in my childhood bedroom, can’t wake up to the smell of breakfast in my childhood kitchen, and can’t lay in the warm grass and read books in my backyard… how will I center myself to who I was, when all I have now is who I am?

I love when people want to talk to me on the way to work. I walk past one of the youth homes in Ames on my way to work, and I’ve been hooted and hollered at by young men on more than one occasion. Bright and early this morning was no exception. I was strolling along, reading my book, when I heard a clatter from an upstairs window, followed by a muffled “HEY!”

I choose to ignore “HEY!”s on principle.

Then he (I didn’t look up, so I don’t know what he looks liked) yelled, “Where you going this morning, beautiful?!”

“TO WORK,” I hollered back, nose still in book.

“I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU!” he called before it sounded like someone pulled him back inside and slammed the door. It reminded me of Teddy yelling down at Jo in Little Women before his teacher yanks him back inside and apologizes to Meg and their mom.

I laughed for the rest of the block.

When I got across the street from IRIS, a red-headed woman and her monsterously huge white dog came jogging alongside me.

“On your way to work?” she asked.

“Yep,” I smiled.

Pause.

“You work at Martin Property Management, DON’T YOU?” she accused.

“No, but I do work in this building.”

Pause.

“Isn’t this dog huge?” she asked.

“He’s amazing.” She jogged off.

Taking a page from Jeanna’s diary…

Happy thoughts to finish this long cold winter:

Sasha and Steven, crafts, coffee, almost finished reading Half the Sky, the Human Rights bills that are in the Iowa House this week, one less inch of snow from this time yesterday, Lost tonight!, open ended opportunities, airplane rides, Adam and Kara’s baby, my wedding ring, my YES kids (on good days), driving, Stomping Grounds banana nutella crepes, Kansas City in the summer, dreadlocks, farm fresh milk

i was on the phone and wanted to go to target. but i didnt have a bra on! and i couldnt figure out speaker phone on my new phone… so i went to target with no bra on! and it was great. cliche: liberating!

I have been to many places. Kigali, Rwanda. Nairobi, Kenya. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Lima, Peru. Iquitos, Peru. California, Texas, Mexico, Big Springs. I have been to lots of places many of my peers have not gone. But I’m about to embark on a place many of my peers have gone and I have not: The Bedroom.

My heart nervously races when I think about what comes after the wedding. I bite my lips together, I turn my eyes upwards. Oh God, I think. How am I supposed to know what to do? When I wanted to learn to sew, I read a book. When I didn’t know what sautee meant, I looked it up on the internet. When I wasn’t sure how delegates worked, I checked Wikipedia (which, side note, is just as accurate – or, inaccurate, depending on how you look at it – as the Encyclopedia Britanica). But this seems… different. I even got a couple books, including “Sex for Dummies” and “Position of the Day” as gag gifts from friends, but no matter how I studied, I just don’t feel like I know everything I need to know. I feel like I need to wash my eyes/brain.

Should I be writing this? Is this AWKWARD? Hey, you don’t know AWKWARD until you realize that in a week and a half you’re going to have sexual intercourse for the first time, and you DONT KNOW HOW. [however, not knowing doesn’t make me any less excited].

How does a condom work? Will it hurt? Has a tampon already rupture the hymen? Is “hymen” the word I was looking for? Does anyone else think that KY looks more messy than it does helpful? Do I need to go out and buy lingerie? Is it REALLY all it’s cracked up to be?

I’m hoping that someone *cough Kristin* who has been down this road can enlighten me at the bachelorette party. I’m not really sure what all we are going to do, although I’m hoping for some lingerie (which I’ve heard the invitations made loud and clear) and maybe some fun at my sexually-inept-expenese.

Just a couple ponderings on this subject (S-E-X). I think I waited too long to have sex. Note: what I am NOT saying is I think I should have had sex already. I think it’s good that I waited for marriage. What I AM saying is that I think that people got married way earlier than 21, so my generation, in this day and age, if they are going to not have sex until they’re married, probably wait longer than anyone else usually waits to have sex. I mean, if you think about it, the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary probably had sex at age 14 or 15, right? She had Jesus when she was about 13, didn’t she? I feel like I missed the boat. It’s like this inside joke that gets brought up all the time that I have to laugh at, but it’s a fake laugh. Like when I was a freshman and still hadn’t had my period yet, and my friends would complain about cramps and I’d nervously fidgit and a little too loudly agree, “OH CRAMPS! GOSH, YEAH MINE KILLED LAST TIME.” What? What are these…cramps? Now it’s like, What? What do you mean… queef? [Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m going to post this.] But seriously, sometimes I am about to fall asleep and shoot up, thinking, “Have I gone too long without sex? It sounds like fun, but am I seriously going to want to do it every day?* I’ve gone this long without it and I don’t FEEL any less human, so what’s the big deal?”

Ok, settle down everyone, there are a few things I have learned about sex. It’s selfless – I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for him. It’s the intimacy that nobody else can reach with the person you love. It’s the physical expression of love. I get that – that makes me warm and tingly and excited and happy. I can see the draw towards that. I am excited for this new, exciting thing that all the kids are (unfortunately) doing these days – except we’ll do it the way we’re supposed to.

Or will we? I’ll probably screw it up by not knowing what goes where. I guess the conclusion I need to come to can be summed up in a song we sang so long ago in a high school musical, Annie Get Your Gun!: I’ll just have to do “what comes naturally”!

*Steven, don’t worry, I’ll try to do it every day. I remember the stuff we learned at marriage counseling! 🙂

me and podpot in the Black Hills

The longest day of my life.

On Tuesday I had you on the phone, chit-chatting about the convertible you were driving. You were in and out of range but you didn’t know it, and you talked even when I told you I couldn’t hear you. You said you would call me back later, when you had better service, when I wasn’t busy.

But you didn’t. And on Friday at work, when Paul tells me my dad is on the phone, I think, “about time he called,” and simultaneously, “that’s not good.” If you were on the phone, if you had taken the time to figure out Border’s phone number to tell me something, it had to be bad. But it wasn’t you, and it was bad. It was grandpa, barely able to talk, then it was grandma, telling me you were in the hospital in Colorado, and it wasn’t good. Colorado? How was I supposed to get to Colorado? But that’s all I wanted to do. I went home and cried and heaved all day trying to figure out how I could get to you.

To my podpot and the one who I told my class had been my best friend in high school. My advocate. My daddy. It’s more important to me that I be near you than anything else, and when I told you about the dream where I was headed to the black hills to come see you but had to turn around because I had to get to work on time, you laughed, but I wish it hadn’t been a dream and I wish I had just picked up and come and seen you.

Grandma and grandpa bought the tickets, and they flew me out. I had a choice – one of those choices that reminds you that you are a human and you have to make the choice that your rational self doesn’t want you to make. I will be abroad for half of this month, so in order to pay rent for next month, I would need to work this week. But instead, I’m in Colorado, and even though I’ve been here all day, I still haven’t seen your eyes. But that is the choice I am glad I made. I’d rather be here, in this strange town where I don’t know anyone, with my family, waiting to see the eyes that you and I share.

I know that God will provide me with the money I need to pay for rent. Grandma and Aunt Cindy sat and were talking about how the bible says we aren’t supposed to worry. I had to remind myself that I needn’t worry about how the rent will be paid. It will be paid and it will be because God provided for me once again.

I held your hand and Aunt Cindy held your other. Your puffy face, you looked so upset in your slumber, like you knew you were not in control. My adventurous spirit comes from you, and you are trapped in your own body. Here we are, the mountains to the west, in a town you would love to take me on a vacation to, and you are stuck sleeping in the ICU. I’d give everything I own, even Bailey, for you to hop out of bed and go white-water rafting with me. But Id give even more for you just to wake up and be able to talk to me. I need my daddy and I have to keep screaming to myself, “DON’T THINK, DON’T THINK DON’T THINK” when I stand next to you and hold your hand because my thoughts take me to places I certainly can’t be when I stand beside you and wish you would open your eyes. Aunt Cindy said that Leland and I were here, and you nodded and squeezed my hand. Maybe the best moment of my life so far. I wonder if the people walking out of the maternity wing with their infants know that when they are ushering life into the world, you are fighting for yours three stories up.

We had our second official Muraho Afurika/Hearts for Rwanda meeting on Saturday. About time, I think sarcastically. It is hard to put together a missions trip, especially one in which thirteen 20-somethings from all over Iowa (and Kansas City) try to meet up for a couple hours. Especially one in which I’m doing a lot of the logistical work. I’m not bragging or complaining. I have had a LOT of fun working on putting this together. It has been a labor of love like one I’ve not experienced yet, and I hope that I can do something like this when I need a full time job. However, Steven and I have been getting a little stressed lately. So many questions and details that need to be ironed out so soon. Who is going? Who is backing out? Who still needs to get us money? Is it too late to get this cancelled or this check cleared? What if this or that? How?

These questions usually use me as a rest stop. They pull in, take a dump, but they are gone pretty quickly. No biggie. Whatever happens is fine with me, because I know that God has provided for me and I know he will provide for those he wants on this trip. Selfish? Maybe. For Steven, however, these questions nestle into his chest and melt like a heap of unkosher fat on a hot day. He gets stressed and frustrated. I don’t like that very much – to me it shows a lack of faith. But he also can use this part of him to get things done that I cannot. He isn’t afraid to get one on one with someone and light a fire under their butt. I don’t know if he just puts things in perspective for people or if he just frustrates them enough that they do what he wants to get him to stop irritating them, but it works. I’m thankful for that.

At noon on Saturday, eleven of the thirteen folks who will be leaving for Kigali in a month and a half arrived at Kate’s and my apartment. We had food ready, we had notes ready, and Nancy was prepared to answer questions for us. Amy, Maggie, Chaz, Ben, Kelly, Steven, Nancy, Liz, and Katie, as well as Kate and I, hashed out details and needs to be met. It was so wonderful to sit in this room with people who are on the same mission as me – to do whatever we can to get to Rwanda this summer with whatever help we can provide. We are excited. We are good-anxious. We are getting prepared.

48 Days Left. [1 week + 1 day + amount of time it rained while Noah was on the Ark]