By Jillian Sims: AYP Compliance and Operations Manager

Gretchen and Matt with their first student, Natasha from Russia

Gretchen and Matt with their first student, Natasha from Russia

Meet Gretchen and Matt in Milwaukee. Though relatively new to the hosting scene (this is their second year and second student hosting), this couple has embraced the challenges and joys that come with welcoming students with disabilities and helping to guide them through their exchange experience. Two years ago, when they first contemplated opening their home to a student, they saw an email about Natasha from Russia, who is blind and decided she was the student for them.

“We thought it would be interesting for us and that we might make good host parents because we both work in the field of visual impairment. We’ve both had a lot of experience with people with disabilities in general, and Gretchen’s dad is blind.”  In fact, the family had such a wonderful and rewarding experience with Natasha, that this year they welcomed another blind student, Faruk from Turkey.

Though the couple had experience working with the blind, hosting students with disabilities has had its challenges. The biggest one of all was adjusting their own expectations about their student’s level of independence and blindness skills. This was a greater challenge with Natasha, before whom the family had not had any other experience, but got easier with Faruk  “because we have more of an open mind about it and we were OK with whatever skills he brought with him.”

With hosting also comes learning about the differences between cultures, but hosting a student with disability like blindness, they were surprised to learn how the cultures and societies differ regarding education, resources available, and attitude:

Faruk utilizing technology to assist him with his daily life

Faruk utilizing technology to assist him with his daily life

We’ve learned about how different countries view blindness.  Faruk is connected to many friends who are blind in Turkey.  Technology is something that is very important to blind people in Turkey.  However, there are some things about the system there that surprised us.  Faruk went to a school for the blind when he was in kindergarten through 8th grade.  He went to an integrated school for high school.  He has had some basic Orientation and Mobility, but nothing to the extent that students get here in the United States.  White canes are expensive in Turkey, while here, they are free.  Natasha had no formal Orientation and Mobility lessons, and she and her classmates were told NOT to use their white canes inside their school for the blind!  Culturally, in the United States, this is appalling to us who are in the field of visual impairment and blindness, as we start giving white canes to little children who are blind even at the age of 3 or 4 years old, and we provide Orientation and Mobility services to them.  Our children are expected to use their white canes all of the time, as it is a tool not only for their safety but also their independence.

As part of hosting a student who faces these challenges, the family and students work with Mobility teacher in their town, named Miss Julie who helps the students gain independence through teaching can and travel skills. She has been a great resource to the students and an integral part of their experience. The family relates a favorite memory:

“When Natasha came from Russia two years ago, Miss Julie was teaching her how to use proper cane skills while going down the stairs, and when Natasha was holding her cane too high, Miss Julie said, ‘Lower your cane!  You don’t want to Shish-Kebob your classmates!’

Natasha thought this was a hilarious way to describe the danger of bad cane technique, but she was also surprised that Julie would know about this dish of meat cooked on skewers, so she said, ‘Oh!  You know Shish Kebob?’

Well, when Faruk came from Turkey, Miss Julie couldn’t wait for him to make that same mistake when going downstairs, and sure enough he did.  So again, Miss Julie said, ‘Lower your cane!  You don’t want to Shish-Kebob your classmates!’

And again, the response was, ‘Oh!  Do you know Shish Kebob?’

The skills that their students learn while in the US are invaluable to them when they return to their home countries, but also improve the student’s overall experience and even morale. Even everyday chores and living can be a whole new world for these students. Matt shares how Faruk has embraced laundry and a fondness for microwaving:

“Faruk is an extremely smart, independent-minded person.  His enthusiasm for being here in the United States was clear to us from the very beginning.  We marked the washing machine and dryer with tactile marks so that he could do his own laundry.  At first, he would do his laundry and say, “I love doing laundry!”  We also marked the microwave with braille, so he can heat up his own food.  He was very excited about this, and wants to get a microwave in Turkey.  Faruk is always open to learning new skills, and adores his Orientation and Mobility teacher because she is working with him so that he can travel in Milwaukee as independently as possible. 

He’s a funny person, and made up new lyrics to “Home, Home on the Range”:

‘Oh give me a home, where the laundry and homeworks are done, and where Ms. Julie teaches me all day!’ Faruk brings light and joy to our family because of his intelligence, sense of humor, sense of caring, and his sense of independence and adventure.  He’s the type of person that everyone wants to be around!

Faruk cooking with his host family

Faruk cooking with his host family

But its not just the joys of a student singing about homework and laundry that the family have received:

“The rewards have been the growth that we’ve seen with our students and their level of independence and blindness skills increasing while they are here.  Also, the lasting relationship that we have cultivated with our students is truly rewarding.  We stay in contact with Natasha over email and Skype.  We are always on the lookout for news stories, books, music, videos and web links that would interest her, and we often send her information over email that we know she would love.  Just the other night, I was wishing that Natasha could be with us and Faruk, because it would be so much fun to do things with them together.”

What would the family share with someone considering hosting a student, or even a student with disabilities?

“Anyone who would leave their familiar school, friends, and family, and risk living with an unknown family for an entire academic school year while speaking a language that is not their native tongue, is automatically an extraordinary person.  If someone does all that on top of having a disability, especially coming from a country which may not have the same level of disability rights, resources and services that we have in the United States, you can understandably expect that you will have a pretty remarkable young person on your hands”.

Natasha volunteering in her local community, teaching Braille

Natasha volunteering in her local community, teaching Braille

However, the family cautions that though this journey is rewarding, families considering this should have an open-minded approach less geared towards charity and more towards empowerment for these amazing students. The family offers some wonderful advice for anyone considering following in their steps:

“In general, I would recommend that people always ask first before providing assistance, that they challenge their student to be more independent and to participate in household chores, and that they have high expectations for their student’s achievement, just as they would for a student without a disability.  I would also recommend that a host family talk to at least 2 or 3 active, involved people who have the same type of disability as their prospective student, both to get a better understanding of the disability, but also to have role models and a support network for both the student and the host parents, as they learn about needed accommodations, skills, and parental and self-advocacy.

It is clear though that it’s all been worth it for this family and the students they have welcomed into their home and lives forever.

Hosting a foreign exchange student with a disability is an amazing and life-changing experience for both the students we have hosted, and for us, as host parents.  We are so very glad that we decided to host Natasha and Faruk, and we look forward to hosting other exchange students with disabilities in the future as well.

 Interested in hosting with CCI Greenheart? Click here to find out more!

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