You won't find bigger local supporters of study abroad opportunities than Barb and Ken Kilkka. For the past 40 years, the West Bloomfield couple — who met during a study abroad function — have participated in Youth for Understanding USA, a nonprofit international educational organization with exchange programs in 64 countries.
Barb Kilkka currently works as field director, where she connects applicants with potential host families in Metro Detroit school districts as far and wide as Oxford, Royal Oak, South Lyon and Huron Valley. She and her family of five have hosted 20 children over the past 20 years in the .
1. You will host your 21st student beginning this August. Frankly speaking, how have you, your husband, and your four children been able to maintain such longevity?
The secret is that we live our normal life and just include them in it. We really don't fuss a lot. The memories we make are the basic memories at home where daily life revolves around work, school, homework, chores, and some fun events on the weekends like going to football games, up north, or hiking and biking or playing a board game together. We normally eat at home, and our exchange kids often help in meal preparation. Ken likes to teach them to golf. I've taught some of them to play tennis or do quilting. They participate in our extended family events.
We all support each other's activities. Are there boring rainy days? Sure, but there are in other countries too. The big reward for us is the lifelong connection and the growth we see from Day 1 until the day they return to their other home.
2. What it is about the basic structure in which you live — the State of Michigan, Oakland County, West Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills Schools — that appeals to students you host?
Most exchange students love the good life in Oakland County. We have wonderful schools which offer them such a broad range of activities that most could never find in their home countries, and frequently, you'll hear a student who raves about the chance they had to be involved with a school broadcasting opportunity, a high school musical, the softball team, lacrosse, the marching band, the choir, religious and volunteer organizations. These affiliations bring memories which far surpass seeing a museum or a tourist site.
The teens are also impressed with the local beauty in our area: the lakes, the forests, and our variety of weather. The exchange students are especially complementary about the generous and open-hearted people of the State of Michigan where there has been a strong tradition of welcoming exchange students for the past 60 years.
3. Could you tell me what has changed about the day-to-day life in the program since you first became involved with it?
In the days when I was a Youth for Understanding exchange student, there was not the instant, inexpensive access to communicate with home. We received snail-mail letters from home, and there was at best a two-week turn-around in receiving an answer to a letter. It may be hard to believe for our modern teens, but actually, exchange students adapted better by not having instant contact with home.
We had a stronger need then to connect to our new host family and use the language of our new country. When we were lonely, we didn't have the heartbreak of knowing that our friends at home were at that precise moment at the beach or our favorite restaurant. We passed over that hump of adaptation more smoothly because we weren't trying to balance living in two cultures at the same time. That is why YFU encourages students and host families to set some reasonable limits on communication with home. About 2-4 times a month makes sense, and any kind of daily contact with home becomes a red flag. But that's one of those matters that can be worked out between the student, the host family, and the volunteer area rep.
4. Could you explain what you do in order to deal with situations which may naturally come up as a teen leaves home for a long period of time?
YFU provides a strong safety net for students and families who participate. The teens go through a somewhat predictable adjustment process, and each host family and exchange student has an assigned volunteer who works with them throughout the experience to make it as successful as possible, for student and family.
We can help develop a plan to help a teen make the most of the experience and work through culture shock or homesickness or other individual concerns. The students also attend day-long orientation events three times during the year where they learn skills that make their exchange better. Host families also have orientations. Many participants enjoy the optional social activities. In short, we are not a "drop-off" organization — we expect to have an ongoing dialogue with host families in the best interest of all participants.
5. How can people help you?
YFU is looking for families who are willing to step up now as hosts for teens arriving in August. Some families agree to host for the school year while others host as a "welcome family" who helps a teen off to a good start for their year. But we also are looking for adult volunteers who would agree to mentor a teen or two or three. Those potential volunteers (and host families) can fill out an application at our website: yfu-usa.org.
We can also use volunteers who would like to help with: planning social activities, publicizing accomplishments of YFU students and families, interviewing families and students, etc. American teens are also invited to participate with YFU, and they have options for exchange: summer, semester, academic year, and gap year programs in 40 countries. There are some scholarships available to certain countries. Those programs are outlined at yfu-usa.org or by calling Admissions at 1-800-TEENAGE.
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