Good Works

From Foreigners to Family

Host family forges bonds across the globe
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Holding a picture from their reunion with past exchange students, Karin and Ken Rourke, center, with the exchange students they are currently hosting, Sofie Nehlsen of Denmark, left, and Flavia Cocchi of Italy, right.

© 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

In August 2017, Ken and Karin Rourke finally realized a dream that took a year and half of planning: a vacation just east of Malaga, Spain, with 10 of their 13 “kids” — foreign exchange students from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia, Denmark and Norway — whom they have hosted in their home during the last 12 years.

“We were really happy to have so many (on the trip),” says Karin, a child life specialist at Bronson Children’s Hospital. “We heard about the few who couldn’t come and it was so heartbreaking. But my mom was like, ‘Karin, really, 10 out of 13 is good!’”

For both Karin and Ken, an emergency department informatics liaison at Bronson Healthcare, each of the exchange students holds a unique place in their hearts. They have all become family, Karin says.

“I don’t think when we started doing it we really thought about it like that — that you’d be a lifelong family,” Karin says.

Their first exchange student, in 2005, was Sascha Dibow from Germany. The Rourkes, who do not have children of their own, regularly keep in touch with their foreign brood through Facebook and emails. Even before the trip to Malaga, Ken and Karin had journeyed to Europe and visited some of their students and the students’ families.

“I know that our student from France, her parents refer to us as ‘your American mom and dad,’” Karin says. “To them, we’re an extension of the family. They made a picture collage, and there was a picture of Ken and I in there.”

For their reunion with their exchange students, whose ages range from 16 to 29, the Rourkes rented a house in Malaga, a port city on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol. Sofie Nehlsen, of Denmark, one of their current exchange students, made the trip to Malaga with her family to meet the Rourkes before coming to live with them in August. Flavia Cocchi, from Italy, the Rourkes’ other current exchange student, was not able to make the trip to Spain.

“We got to meet (Sofie’s) parents, which gives them the comfort of having met us,” Karin says.

Over the course of that week in Malaga, the group swam in the pool and ocean, cooked dinners together, played board games and exchanged fond memories. Ken and Karin put together a 15-minute video with 15 pictures per student. One of the students created T-shirts with “Rourke Family” printed on the front. Since the Rourkes often host exchange students in pairs, some of the kids already knew each other. This trip offered the opportunity for all of the participants to meet, and they all bonded, says Ken.

“We worked hard to find each group (pairs of kids) that worked well together and worked with us,” Ken says of selecting exchange students. “So we found out there was a commonality with all of them. It really felt when you were there (that we were) a family. They’re all siblings with each other.”

The older “Rourke” kids immediately brought Nehlsen into the fold. Some of them sat down with Karin, she says, and approved their newest “sister.”

“I think that she’s going to be a really good part of our family,” Karin says they told her.

The Rourkes were familiar with the foreign exchange programs before hosting students. Ken’s sister, Linda Woodbury, spent a year with a host family in Australia when she was a 16-year-old junior in high school. Woodbury has maintained a lifelong relationship with her foreign family, Ken says, traveling to visit them — and vice versa — and attending family weddings.

“That gave me a great, positive feeling,” he says of deciding to host students.

When Karin was growing up, her family hosted six foreign exchange students — two from Sweden and one each from Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic and New Zealand. Karin’s mother also worked at ASSE International, an international student exchange organization with a mission of fostering international understanding through educational and cross-cultural programs.

ASSE was established by the Swedish government in 1976 as the American Scandinavian Student Exchange and has grown to include 38 offices in 31 countries. The Rourkes currently utilize ASSE for hosting students, and Karin also worked there prior to becoming a child life specialist.

In 1985, at 15, Karin became an exchange student herself and spent six weeks in Sweden with a host family. In 1989, she revisited them. When the Rourkes stayed in Malaga last year, they met with Karin’s Swedish “parents” —the first time Karin had seen them in 28 years. The connection between her and the family remained strong, she says.

“He (her host father) hugged me and patted my head and said something in Swedish,” Karin says. “And I had to think about it for a minute. He said, ‘My little girl.’ I almost needed a little tissue.”

Karin describes herself as “an old hippie soul that wants everyone to get along and love each other.” She and Ken both encourage people to open their homes to foreign exchange students. It benefits host families and students, they say, who learn from each other about similarities and differences between cultures. Plus, there’s a need to fill.

“There’s always students that are looking for families,” Karin says. “It’s a great opportunity to expand your horizons.”

When asked if the hosting experience ever gets old, the Rourkes firmly shake their heads no.

“To me it’s just as exciting with No. 12 and 13,” Karin says. “You love them all for different reasons.”

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On the Experience of Hosting

"To me, it's just as exciting with No. 12 and 13. You love them all for different reasons."

–Karin Rourke