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THE TIMES, THEY ARE EXCHANGING' : Volunteer Families Open Hearts, Homes to High-Schoolers From Foreign Lands

July 21, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Talk about an extended family with a global twist.

The Lesters of Huntington Beach--Richard, 55, and Adorae, 54--already have a big clan in the usual manner.

They have four married daughters, 10 grandchildren and enough other kinfolk to easily fill their neatly furnished, two-story suburban house at clan reunions.

But the Lesters always seem to have room for one more.

Like Philip and Lilian from Kenya. Geoffrey from Ghana. Eli from Brazil. Seyda from Turkey. Umberto from Italy. Christine from Sweden.

Since 1974, as a volunteer host family under a nonprofit AFS International/Intercultural exchange program, seven foreign high school students have lived with the Lesters, usually for an entire school year.

And next month, the Lesters are taking their eighth: Oscar, a black youth from South Africa.

All this has brought the Lesters a certain esteem. "People think of us as a kind of international house--a tiny United Nations," said Richard, who teaches math and computer sciences at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale in Los Angeles County.

Such admiration, however, is usually tempered by downright amazement. "People tell us how wonderful it is, and for such a good cause," said Adorae, a kindergarten teacher at Liberty Christian Schools in Huntington Beach.

But, she added, "they also leave the impression that they would never do it and that maybe families who do are a little peculiar."

Volunteer families like the Lesters are indeed a part of what remains a fringe phenomenon in American society.

Authoritative figures are hard to come by, due to the maze of nonprofit organizations, commercial ventures and ad hoc community groups in the field--and the lack of a single agency that compiles such data.

What estimates there are underscore the relative rarity of volunteer "home-stay" families--those who host foreign students not only for full-year residences but also for visitors in the increasingly popular summer-only programs that focus on learning English.

According to AFS regional director Craig Brown in Pasadena, the national numbers have risen dramatically in the past decade, but the total is still small--an estimated 35,000 for both full-year and short-term programs at the high school level.

Orange County, home-stay organizers say, seems to reflect the national experience. Although the county is among the more attractive areas for such placements, there were only about 200 full-year "home-stay" high school students in the academic year that just ended, in addition to hundreds more in the short-term, summer-only visits.

But, organizers point out, it is understandable why the numbers are still low.

After all, not every American family--even in this era of glasnost diplomacy and "people-to-people understanding"--is about to engage in this kind of surrogate parenting.

Not if it means taking on the social and disciplinary as well as fiscal responsibilities of caring for a stranger from a strange land. Not if it means giving up certain familial privacy, especially if the student is staying 11 months, the usual time for an academic-year resident.

"We're talking real commitment here--in time, energy and emotions," said William Gustafson, president of the Laguna Beach-headquartered ASSE International Student Exchange Programs. "It calls for people who are, in these respects, quite special."

Like the Johnsons.

If there is an "ideal" home-stay setting, it would probably mean the kind offered by the Johnsons--Glenn, 46, and Sharon, 45--of Placentia.

Their house, a splendidly restored dwelling in the city's historic sector, is stylish and spacious, complete with a back-yard pool. They live close to the freeway, shopping centers, schools and parks.

Their oldest daughter, Heather, 21, is a communications major at Arizona State University. She had lived with a family in Sweden while a summer exchange student there in 1983 (placed under the La Jolla-based American Intercultural Student Exchange).

And their twin daughters, Heidi and Holly, 17-year-old cheerleaders at Valencia High School, are particularly close in age to a visiting student.

Yet, like many host families, the Johnsons were initially reluctant.

"It's something you have heard about and figure you would like to try. But I was concerned about giving up the privacy and the time--and for a whole year," said Glenn, who owns an architectural-model firm.

"But because Heather really loved her (foreign) stay, and had gotten so much from it, we were won over by the idea. It has turned out to be a wonderful experience."

In 1984-85, the Johnsons hosted their first full-year high-school student, Minna Fred from Sweden, under ASSE International Student Exchange Programs. This past year, the student was Pernilla Kuhlefelt from Finland, again under ASSE.

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