CENTERVILLE—When Kathy Atkinson agreed to help a friend find host families for students from Germany about eight years ago; she never dreamed it would mushroom into a life-changing experience.
“My friend got involved with the Adventure Homestays Abroad organization,” said Atkinson. “She called and said, ‘I could really use your help finding homes for students coming from Germany.’ So I helped with the placement. The next year she called and asked if I was interested in taking over.”
It didn’t seem hard to do, said Atkinson. “It is a great program where kids can come from Europe to experience a real American family – not what they see on TV,” she said. “They go to school and it improves their English. It was 15 – 20 students once a year at Clearfield High. But now it’s about 80 kids a year. It’s blossomed.”
The program is very popular. “Kids from Europe love coming to Utah,” Atkinson said. “There are such good people in Davis County. The culture is great and we have beautiful scenery and national parks. I kept doing it because I’ve seen lives change forever.”
Visiting students come for three weeks either in the spring or fall. Currently, Clearfield High, Syracuse High and Viewmont High participate in the program as well as West High.
“It’s become so successful that some of the teachers have started to coordinate with the instructors in Germany on their own,” she said. “The students visit the host school and ‘shadow’ their host brother or sister to classes. If the host family doesn’t have a child their age, we find one at the school. They go to class and participate but don’t do the homework.”
Atkinson believes it’s more than just a learning experience. “When something happens in America, maybe they won’t think ‘oh those Americans.’ They’ll think about the people who hosted them,” she said. “It’s such a good experience.”
Recently the situation was reversed and Atkinson was able to take some students to Germany to have the same experience. “There were seven students, two girls and one boy were from Clearfield,” she said. “All but one had hosted a German student. We were there for three weeks and stayed with host families. They attended school there and we went on some excursions.”
The group had an unexpected reception with the mayor of Dortmund. “He was really, really nice,” said Atkinson. “We took pictures with him and we met in a hall where he holds formal meetings. We presented him with a gift from Utah. A wedding vase painted by a Navajo artesian. It was kind of symbolic of the marriage of two cultures. I was so impressed that he took the time to answer our questions and spent so much time with kids from Utah.”
Communication was not really an issue since German children learn English at a young age, she said. “The host families were excited to speak English with Americans. The students went to classes for the first week and after they had a taste they were given the option to go to an English class instead.”
When the German students come here, they receive school credit for one week, but the districts here don’t allow credit so the students have to go after school is out.
Clearfield student Shelby Findlay, who will be a senior this fall, was excited to go on the trip and found some differences in the German schools.
“Here we go from 7:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m. or so,” she said. “There they have three to five lessons and the time they get home depends on the lessons. They have a free period for about an hour and they can just chill out or do homework. They have a cafeteria area but they actually make the food there. Here they just heat it up.”
Findlay’s family already hosted a German student, Katrina and the two got together when she was in Germany. “When we walked into the school, Katrina and her friends were there. They were so excited to see me. I felt very welcome.”
As a chaperone, Atkinson was at the school every day. “I would hang out in the cafeteria or student lounge where the kids could check in with me,” she said. “It was kind of fun because one of the girls came in and said she was going to go sit with her friends. She’d already made friends. I loved it.”