Host families sought to share cultures, customs with foreign exchange students

  • Greenfield resident Mariah Kurtz, left, with German student Luise Wetzel, 17, at Poet’s Seat Tower. Kurtz and her partner, Bill Pennington, enrolled in a host family program for exchange students that brought Wetzel into their home for the school year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • German student Luise Wetzel, 17, left, attends a Greenfield High School game. She was staying with Greenfield residents Mariah Kurtz and Bill Pennington as part of a foreign exchange program. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield residents Mariah Kurtz and Bill Pennington enrolled in a host family program for exchange students that brought German student Luise Wetzel, 17, into their home for the school year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield residents Mariah Kurtz and Bill Pennington, right, hosted German student Luise Wetzel, 17, for the school year. Wetzel, along with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, left, even got to attend Kurtz and Pennington’s wedding before returning to Germany. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2022 8:18:19 PM
Modified: 8/9/2022 8:15:03 PM

After participating in a foreign exchange student program when she was in high school, Greenfield resident Mariah Kurtz and her partner, Bill Pennington, decided to take the plunge and become a host family themselves.

Kurtz and Pennington soon found themselves heading to the airport to pick up 17-year-old Luise Wetzel, a high school senior from Germany. In a funny coincidence, Kurtz recalled Wetzel was from a town just 20 minutes away from where she studied when she was in high school.

“My partner and I don’t have kids, but we really like having them in our lives,” said Kurtz, who works as Erving’s assistant town planner. “It was a great time. It was very fun introducing a student to Greenfield and being able to share what Greenfield and Franklin County are like.”

With the school year set to begin in a few weeks, foreign exchange students are poised to enroll in schools around Franklin County and local organizations are looking for families, like Kurtz and Pennington, who are interested in hosting a student for the year.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for families to learn about the culture and customs of another country without leaving their home,” said Patricia Darby, the area coordinator for Northwest Services’ PEACE Program, which exchanges high school students around the world. “You gain a new son or daughter and it’s a friendship for a lifetime.”

Shelburne resident Jackie Walsh, a coordinator with Program for Academic Exchange (PAX) and a previous host family participant, said hosting international students is a “really great” opportunity to learn more about different cultures, while also introducing a young person to a whole new world of learning.

“You start to see what we have to offer through their eyes,” Walsh said.

Both Northwest Services’ PEACE and PAX’s programs set no standard definition of a host family, so families of all compositions and sizes are encouraged to register.

Additionally, students are hand-picked and must meet the following list of requirements: maintain good grades in school, can speak English, be fully insured and bring their own spending money. Students and families are also matched up based on interests and lifestyle choices.

Once in the U.S., students are enrolled in local schools — Wetzel went to Greenfield High School — and families are encouraged to spend time and participate in activities with them.

For Kurtz, one of the first things she and Pennington did was take Wetzel to a peach orchard and then to a demolition derby.

“It’s fun to introduce things that are very American, very Franklin County,” Kurtz said. “It was a really fun experience for us, not having kids of our own. It was unique.”

Even better, Kurtz said, Wetzel got to play a part in her marriage to Pennington as she was still in the U.S. for their wedding.

“We were planning our wedding already when we decided (to enroll in the program),” Kurtz said, noting their wedding was right before Wetzel returned to Germany. “Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend actually came over for the wedding. … It was kind of a big party for our marriage and for her time here.”

For Walsh, who has hosted several students over the years, she’s seen her boys play soccer at the Academy at Charlemont and ski at Berkshire East Mountain Resort.

“I got to become a soccer mom,” Walsh joked. She added she often takes her students to Shelburne Falls and they are always amazed that such a beautiful village is hidden in the hills of Franklin County.

The fall, Darby said, is also a great season to introduce foreign students to America because we celebrate so many unique holidays here — especially if kids are coming from outside of European and Christian backgrounds. Here in Franklin County, we also get four distinct seasons, which is an aspect of the region many parts of the world miss out on.

“You get to introduce them to things in America that they don’t know about — Thanksgiving, Halloween, things like that,” Darby said.

Around Christmas, Darby said organizers often bring the PEACE Program’s students together for a Yankee swap, which is always a fun sort of culture shock. “No student, no matter what country they’re from, has seen a Yankee swap,” she said.

Darby and Walsh said there is no deadline for applying to become a host family, but “the sooner we can do it, the better,” Walsh noted.

Northwest Services’ PEACE Program is looking to place several students around Franklin County. More information can be found at nw-services.com or by emailing Darby at patdarby6@yahoo.com. The Program for Academic Exchange (PAX) is looking to place three students at the Academy at Charlemont. More information can be found at pax.org or by contacting Walsh at shelburnejackieb@gmail.com.

The relationships, Walsh and Darby said, can last a lifetime. Kurtz said she and Pennington keep in contact with Wetzel through WhatsApp and social media, and they are currently planning a trip to Europe to visit.

“For us, it was very nice to be able to share our community with her,” Kurtz said, adding that Wetzel volunteered at Greenfield’s Stone Soup Cafe one weekend. “They really get attached to the community and that means a lot to us.”


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