NEW SALEM — By providing housing for foreign exchange students, New Salem resident Jeanne Clayton said she “opened her heart and her home” to cultural exchange and memories that will last a lifetime.
Clayton and her husband, John, participated in the NW Services student exchange program during the 2019-2020 school year. They learned about the program through Area Coordinator Pat Darby, a retired teacher who has been placing exchange students in schools across Franklin County, and the whole of Massachusetts, for 28 years with the NW Services Promoting Education And Cultural Exchange (PEACE) Program.
Students have attended from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, France, Vietnam, Ecuador and Thailand.
The PEACE Program is a nonprofit international exchange organization for high school students, “dedicated to bringing the youth of different nations and cultures together at a family level, forging bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime.” Darby said students who participate in the program want to learn about American culture and often share aspects of their own culture.
“Host families host because they want to learn about another culture and, without even leaving their doorstop, they can have someone come into their home and learn all sorts of things about another country,” Darby said.
Speaking via Zoom this week, Clayton shared a copy of a photo book she made from her time hosting two exchange students — Angie, from Ecuador, and Tong, from Thailand, who were both 18 years old and attended Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange during their stay. The book contained photos of the students hopping on the school bus, attending prom, playing cornhole with the Claytons, and witnessing the seasons change with the colors of fall and their first time seeing snow.
“They both liked cooking so that was a fun thing, you know, making things from their cultures,” Clayton said. “I’d turn them loose in my kitchen.”
The students attended a street festival in Turners Falls and the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, toured Amherst College’s campus and witnessed ski jumping. As an outdoors person, Clayton said she took the students on hikes to the Quabbin Reservoir and other local conservation areas. They volunteered at a nearby apple orchard with Clayton, and even learned about maple sugaring.
Both foreign exchange students submitted hand-drawn designs for the NW Services’ annual Art Cover Design Contest. The winner’s artwork is featured on the annual Advisory List cover, and the student can win $500. Angie’s design read, “It’s not a trip or vacation, it’s a second life.” Tong’s submission had a human eye with a collection of imagery inside the iris and the words, “The great eye-opener.”
Clayton said she first learned about the NW Services foreign exchange program after reading an advertisement Darby placed in the newspaper.
“It said, ‘open your hearts and your house’ to an exchange student, and this intrigued me,” Clayton said.
She and her husband, both 68, have no children of their own and have traveled to numerous countries such as Italy, Ireland and France, as well as within the United States. Clayton said her husband has Parkinson’s disease and they’re unable to travel like they used to, so they were interested in Darby’s pitch to “bring the experience of another culture” into their own home.
“I responded to what Pat put in the ad,” Clayton said. “That’s what it felt like to me — sharing our home and heartfelt experiences.”
Darby said some families have volunteered over the years to host students from several countries. Students have been placed with families in the Pioneer Valley and Ralph C. Mahar regional school districts in years past, and participate in school clubs and sports. Unfortunately, the 2019-2020 school year and exchange student program were cut short by the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clayton said March 13 was the last day before the students participated in remote learning models.
Some students stayed in the United States and completed classes, while others were able to complete remote learning through their host schools after securing flights back to their home countries. Darby said she did not seek students or host families to participate during the 2020 to 2021 school year.
Now she is looking for interested host families for the coming academic year. She anticipates the program will be able to operate as normal. She is aiming to place between six and 10 students, an average participation, with host families from September 2021 through May 2022. Host families do not receive financial compensation but are eligible for deduction claims on itemized tax returns.
Darby said one family has hosted more than 25 foreign exchange students over the years through NW Services’ PEACE Program. Most families stay in touch with the students they host, sometimes traveling to visit them in their home countries.
“People host for different reasons, but mostly because they would like to learn about another culture, or experience their food and customs,” Darby said, “just like students coming here want to do with our customs and traditions.”
Reporter Zack DeLuca can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4579.