It’s one of my favorite stories to tell. Hosting is one the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. When I say hosting, I’m not referring to hosting a dinner party. This type of hosting means welcoming a foreign exchange student into your home for a school year.

While I knew foreign exchange students in high school, I had certainly never planned on hosting one (let alone two) exchange students as an adult. Sometimes, unique opportunities are placed in front of you. What you do with them is entirely up to you.

It was August 2007. I heard that a family had backed out of hosting a student from Germany less than 2 weeks before school began. With no one stepping up to “host” him, I said, “he can just stay with us.” At the time, my children were ages 6, 3 and 1. Why not throw in a 16 year old boy from Germany in the mix? After a background check, rearranging of bedrooms and one conversation with this young man, we were all set. Thomas arrived a few days later. Within a day of being in our home, my 3 year old son was telling him he loved him. It was then I knew it would all be alright.

We couldn’t have picked a better fit for our family if we tried. Thomas fit right in. It was an easy transition from three kids to four kids in our home. In his family, Thomas was the youngest of three. In our family, he became the oldest of four. He became the best big brother to my three. Those 10 months were not enough.

When signing up for hosting on such short notice, I knew we would build relationships. I knew we would teach him about how typical American families live. What I didn’t expect is the multitude of things he taught me, especially about being brave and adventurous. Thomas welcomed every new experience with an open mind, made amazing friends, enjoyed every day here and loved every thing I cooked. I also didn’t expect to love him like he was one of my own kids. Thomas extended his stay until the last possible day he could. The day he left, my heart broke. There were so many tears. I swore I would never do it again if it was going to hurt like that when he left. Thank goodness for technology. We Skyped as often as we could. and Thomas came back to stay with us two more summers.

Then it happened. It was several years later. It was October 10, 2014, to be exact — Thomas’s birthday. There was a message on our answering machine from Thomas’s foreign exchange coordinator asking for me to call him. In my head I said, “Nope.” That night my daughter and I went to see The Good Lie with Reese Witherspoon (the one where she helps the refugees from Sudan). Between it being Thomas’s birthday and seeing that movie, it was a sign. So of course I called the coordinator back. He proceeded to tell me about Malina. She was here and needed a new host family. I responded, “You know how sad I was when Thomas left.” He ignored me and proceeded to tell me how perfect she would be for our family. Of course he would say that. I told him I would think about it, and maybe I could talk to her and take her to lunch. To this day, I am thankful for that call.

A week later, my daughter and I took Malina to lunch. She was so incredibly sweet, and we had a really good afternoon filled with laughter and great conversations. When we dropped her off that day, the car door had barely closed before my daughter said, “Can we keep her?” And you guessed it, we did. Within the week, she moved in with us. We went from three kids to four kids in the house once again. She too fit right in and became an amazing big sister to my three. Malina is thoughtful and kind and loving and is exactly what our family needed. She became my German daughter. Malina too has been back twice to stay with us.

I would love to share every memory, every story, and all the details, but you would be reading for days. I was in awe of these kids who were willing to go across the globe and be away from their families for ten months just so they could learn about another culture. How amazing is that? I am grateful to their parents for sharing their children with us. I absolutely love being their American mom.

One of my favorite things is what it taught my own children. They learned unconditional love, strength, bravery, confidence, cherishing every day, and to be adventurous. There is a great big world out there with so many amazing people to meet, and we got to share that with two truly exceptional people.

A few years ago, my family had the opportunity to go to Germany. We split our time equally between Thomas and Malina. Meeting their families, their parents, their siblings, was like meeting our extended family. They welcomed us into their homes like we had welcomed their children. What joy that was.

But here is the ultimate joy. One day on the trip, we had gone to Amsterdam with Thomas. As luck would have it, Malina and her family were there that day for a family vacation. It was that day that I was able to have all my kids in one place. My five. My hearts. My world. Eating lunch and sharing stories. It was one of the best days of life. I will never forget that gift, that joy-filled day.

To this day, I get messages and snaps every week from my German kids. We exchange gifts at the holidays. We send birthday messages. We Facetime when we can. We are family. Who knew that one comment – “he can just stay us” would change our lives so much. I am so grateful that it did. My cup runneth over.

xoxo, Jane Anne

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