For the Richardson family of Mays Landing, hosting a foreign exchange student through Rotary International's Youth Exchange program has been the experience of a lifetime.
Now, the Mays Landing Rotary Club is offering that opportunity to a new set of families and has begun taking applications from families interested in hosting a male German teen for the 2013-14 school year.
The Richardsons volunteered to host 17-year-old Erica, who is from Sardinia, Italy, when Oakcrest High School junior Amber heard about it last year in Italian class. Debra Richardson, Amber's mother and a teacher at Oakcrest, said she was glad they did.
"Learning about her culture has been really fun, but it's also watching Erica grow and learn," Richardson said. "When we first got her in December, her English was still kind of limited, and now it's kind of funny, she's picking up her colloquialisms. It's really fun to watch her grow."
The local Rotary club has a long tradition of embracing the organization's mission of fostering positive international relations and has sponsored student exchanges for about 20 years, said Youth Exchange Officer Roy Klein. Next year will be the club's sixth or seventh in a row sponsoring a student, Klein said.
The group is looking for three families to each commit to hosting the student for 3½ months. Host families must live within the area served by Oakcrest High School, which the student will attend for the 2013-14 school year. Families will be required to feed the student and provide him a personal place for sleep and study.
There is no ideal family the group is looking for, Klein said, and families with and without children as well as single- and dual-parent families are invited to apply.
All applicants will be subject to in-home interviews and background checks.
The Mays Landing group's exchange goes both ways, and they will sponsor Atlantic City High School senior Stephanie Kneble, of Margate, as she attends school in Poland starting in August.
Erica has been in the United States since Aug. 28 and with the Richardsons since Dec. 1. In the past few months, she has become close with the family, particularly with 16-year-old Amber, with whom she attends Oakcrest.
"It's very different (having Erica here)," Amber said. "I don't have any siblings, so she's kind of like the sister I never had."
Erica, whose last name was withheld at the request of the U.S. Department of State, said she had hoped to come to America since she was a kid, so spending the past eight months in the United States has been a dream come true.
She studied some English in school, she said, but was hardly functional when she arrived. In the months since, she's become proficient.
As Erica has become acquainted with the language, so too has she come to love American culture. She's become quite fond of foods such as pancakes and cupcakes, which aren't served in Italy. And while the espresso-fueled Italian was initially disgusted by the weaker American brew, she has developed a Starbucks obsession and plans to take an American coffee maker home with her.
The trip, Erica said, has proved to be everything she hoped it would be.
"This is the best year in my life," she said. "It's the best experience that I ever took."
This attitude extends to Erica's hosts as well, and Debra said Erica has become almost like another daughter.
For anyone with the means and willingness to host a student, Debra said, passing up the chance to do so would be a mistake.
"If you have room and time to share what it is that you love about our country and our culture, then it's something you should definitely look into," she said.
For more information or to apply to be a host family, contact Roy Klein at 609-909-0955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The club, which meets most Tuesdays at 6:15 p.m. at Ye Olde Mill Street Pub in Mays Landing, is looking for new members.
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