Herald JournalHerald Journal, May 24, 2004

Host families meet lifetime friends in exchange students

By Heidi Stutelberg


What may start out as an awkward situation can lead to a lifetime of friendship for many local host families that sponsor foreign exchange students.

Two such Lester Prairie families, Barry and MerriLea Kyllo and Chris and Jane Otto, have experience in hosting exchange students.

“It’s like adding another child to your family,” the Kyllos commented.

. . . Except the new family member may not speak fluent English and is trying to learn a new culture.

While language barriers subside for the student and family during the first few months, the exchange student learns house rules, blends into the educational system, adjusts to American culture, and eventually becomes a part of the family.

The host family is required to provide three meals a day and the students need to bring their own spending money.

The Kyllos stressed that a family shouldn’t “host an exchange student if your children are against it.”

“The desire to open your heart and family to another student has to be there,” they added.

This year, the Kyllos hosted their third student, Anna Lohmann, from Germany, while the Ottos hosted their first student, Marja Noomen, from Estonia, a small country off the Baltic Sea.

The exchange students have to be independent. Not every situation is perfect, so a host family needs to be able to work through any issues that may arise.

Both families and their exchange students shared their experiences, as well as photos, and the many things they learned from each other.

For Lohmann and Noomen, coming to America was an opportunity to learn the English language.

It is to their advantage, from a career standpoint, to speak English fluently, since English is the most spoken language of the world.

During their stay here, they are required to always speak in English to prevent any isolation from their host families, and also from other students at school.

The first week or so of school was frustrating for both of them, while trying to interpret all the English that was heard, read, and spoken. By October, communication was much easier for both girls.

Many new experiences were gained for Noomen during her stay with the Ottos.

She went along with Chris Otto deer hunting, rode on a neighbor’s tractor, named a few sheep, and learned how to make tacos, now one of her favorite foods.

Lohmann has enjoyed living in Lester Prairie. The Kyllos’ daughters, Rachel, 15, and Karlea, 6, thought of Lohmann as their big sister. Karlea said, “I like her babysitting me.”

One misconception Lohmann had of Americans is that no one rides bikes. She was surprised to see many people in Lester Prairie riding their bikes around town.

Lohmann also had to adjust to the Kyllo’s kitchen appliances and measurements.

Lohmann was used to measuring by weight, so the Kyllos were surprised to find their bathroom scale in the kitchen, because a recipe needed two pounds of potatoes.

This summer, Rachel Kyllo is going with Lohmann on a 16-day west coast trip with other exchange students. Any host family siblings, 15 years and older are able to go on this trip.

For the Ottos, there was plenty of action during Noomen’s stay.

The Ottos have four children. Jennie, a tenth grader, and Eric, a junior, are at home yet, and two are away at college.

When Noomen’s grandmother passed away in January, Noomen flew back to Estonia for the funeral.

During her short stay, she tried to teach her mother how to make tacos. Her mother had the right seasonings, but it didn’t turn out quite right, she commented.

Noomen’s mother also gave birth to her little brother only five days after she returned to Lester Prairie, so Noomen is anxious to see him when she returns.

Noomen also was so used to the American ways of life, it felt weird to go home, she said. For instance, in Estonia, milk has a different taste and people there only drink whole milk.

Noomen was able to do a lot of snowboarding at Powder Ridge, Buck Hill, and Madison, Wisc. And along with the other three foreign exchange students at Lester Prairie, she acted in the fall school play, which was rewritten so they could all have a part. She was also a member of the stage crew for the spring play.

Despite a few sports injuries, which involved trips to the emergency room, Noomen has enjoyed her stay with the Ottos and hopes to return with her sister and attend the University of Minnesota.

Jennie Otto said, “I’m glad we did it.” Though the entire Otto family enjoyed the foreign exhange student experience, they do not plan to host another student in the future.

Next year, the Kyllo family is traveling to Germany to visit all three families of their exchange students.

Profiles of all eligible students are provided by the organization Youth For Understanding, represented in this area by Kathy Kiekhaefer of Lester Prairie.

The Kyllos mentioned that Youth For Understanding has an impressive screening process.

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