Saturday, January 05, 2008

My Phone Conversation with Margaret Crotty

Way back in November, I wrote an open letter to Margaret Crotty, President and CEO of AFS Cultural Programs, complaining about AFS's practice of sending teens to foreign homes without a permanent family to welcome them. These teens would spend their first few weeks (or months) with a "welcome family" (a misnomer; it's really more of a "temporary family") until a permanent home could be found -- often by way of recruiting that bordered on begging. It broke my heart to see this happen and I wished that all AFS exchange students could be brought into loving, prepared, inviting homes as Laura was brought into ours. I appealed to directly to Margaret (via e-mail and blog post) to address my concern.

I heard from Margaret via e-mail two days ago, and yesterday she and I chatted on the phone for at least a half hour.

First, I have to say that I found out in our phone call that Margaret is almost brand new to the position, having only started at AFS a few weeks before my e-mail arrived! I had no idea, and had I known, I don't think I would have been so hard on her. Second, I must tell you that Margaret is one of the nicest, most articulate, most compassionate people I've talked to in a long time. She seems truly committed to listening and to making necessary changes in the organization. And she is wonderfully friendly!

She began by telling me that she completely agrees with my assessment and concern and that if she could stop the need for temporary families she'd do it in a heartbeat. The ultimate problem, she told me, comes down to too few American families willing to open their homes to AFS students from around the world. Huge numbers of international students apply in their own countries to come to America, and the process of selecting kids (only about 1/10 of applicants are accepted), then going through reference checks, school reports, health screenings and other preparatory issues takes time, so the process on the kid's end must begin early, with the assumption that they can all be placed. While that is happening, AFS is working to find families for these kids to live with.

Unfortunately, THAT is where things get gummed up. Quite simply, there just aren't enough families volunteering to take in these amazing kids. And they are amazing! Without exception, EVERY SINGLE AFS exchange student I've met has been wonderful -- polite, passionate, friendly, curious, open-minded and, in most cases, very smaaaart. I can only describe the whole lot as "high caliber." So if families are concerned about opening their homes to some juvenile delinquent, I can pretty much assure them, it won't happen!

Most of our conversation was spent brainstorming ways to inform and "recruit" (I still hate that word) host families. Currently, it's being done mostly via adult channels -- parent to parent, AFS volunteers to potential parents in the community, etc. I told Margaret about my approach to the production of FUEL (addressing the obesity epidemic, for teens) and CHILL (addressing teen stress) -- that I decided not to heavily script those videos, but instead to simply talk to teens about their lives and their world. It worked because it was peer-to-peer communication. Why not take the same approach to finding homes for AFS international students, I suggested to Margaret.

Why not develop a workshop, assembly or mini-conference that is presented to high school freshmen and sophomores, given in early Spring (most international students arrive in August), that focuses primarily on the testimonials of teens, both American and international, who have been involved with AFS? The kids' stories in their own words, with both the good and the bad, keeping it completely real? Kat, for example, might tell about the times she resented having another "kinda-sorta" sister in the house, when she was just getting ready to be the only daughter (since Elisabeth had just gone to college). But more than that, she'd talk of the wonderful times she had with Laura -- in Vancouver, crossing the swinging bridge, laughing the whole way across, or decorating Christmas cookies, or just hanging out at home. Aleks would perhaps talk about speaking German with Laura and getting answers to his German homework from her.

One thing teens do amazingly well is influence and "sell" to each other. Why not use that powerful force to prompt them to go home to their parents, pass on the stories they'd heard, present a URL address to their parents, and "convince" their parents to think about hosting a student? Isn't that worlds better than a last-minute e-mail into a parent's in-box, begging them to be a temporary family to an AFS student who will arrive next week?!

I told Margaret that I'd put together a proposal of sorts, outlining this idea, and that I'd be happy to be involved in implementing it. So I have homework -- which is fine. It's good, in fact!

And here's some homework for you -- and for all your friends. Consider opening your home to an exchange student for 10 months. It will change your life, I promise you. It will change your lives in the most wonderful ways, and you will never be quite the same.

The down-side? You will miss your adopted son or daughter every day after they go back home. But oh, how much richer you all will be for that experience!

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Andrea M said...

I am glad to see you have made contact and are doing something about the problem. We would 100% open our home to a student! We are abroad for another two years ourselves but we have already decided to take part in my dh's work sponsored exchange program once we return to the US.
This is a great way to use your blog to spread the word.

Jen said...

I'm glad she was so open, Carol. That's good news! I'm going to write you separately in an e-mail, because we actually do what you're suggesting in our area and it's had mixed results, but some very good ones.

Also... an idea... maybe those of us who have been on exchanges, hosted students, are expats, etc., could band together around placement time this spring and have an awareness day about hosting these kids. What do you think?

Carol said...

I think it's a great idea, Jen! I do believe that the only way to change this is at a local, grassroots, personal level where families touched by exchange programs talk with families who are wondering or contemplating...

Let's talk. I have a feeling AFS is all ears...


Maria said...

I am waiting for The Boy to get a little older, and then I do hope to open our home (maybe even more than once???) for exchange. I think it is an awesome opportunity for all involved!

Goofball said...

hey I am in for the awareness day idea that Jen launched! But let's not only stick to AFS then ;).

Keep me up to date if you'll launch that idea, ok?

AA said...

I have always wanted to host an exchange student. I am a single mom with a chaotic schedule and I haven't been able to see how it would work. Just today I saw an ad for this same thing in our small town paper and thought I must talk to the boyfriend about doing it when we get married.

Hopefully someday it will work out for me.

Anonymous said...

You know what, I was one of those students who didn't have host family information untill right before I got on the plane, all I got was a sticky note. It all worked out. Your opinion is your view, students and natrual families can withdraw if they don't have a family two weeks to departure. Most students/natrual parents choose not to. Why? Because we are more open and flexiable then you are, we know there will be a family waiting for us, even on a temp. basis, it is much better then NOT getting to go because volunteers have been working their asses off and haven't found a family just yet.
Maybe you shouldn't speak for students and natrual families, haveing never been one.

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