Friday, August 22, 2014

Adventures with Filippo: Summer's End

I am a local school teacher. I have weekends off, but my husband, Don, works weekends, so these are the last whole days we have together until my next school vacation. We have been making the most of them, and of our time with Filippo, our new exchange student through AFS Intercultural Programs.

Wednesday we spent the morning at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, "One of the Seven Engineering Marvels of the Modern World," when it was constructed about fifty years ago. Its official name is the Lucius J. Kellam, Jr., Bridge-Tunnel, although nobody calls it that. It connects nearby Virginia Beach with the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland. It is scenic, beautiful, historic, and worth the rather hefty toll that most travelers pay.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel crosses two channels and an inlet between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic

The Chesapeake Bay is North America's environmentally estuary. It's important. Save the bay!

There is a rest station partway along the journey where we stopped, visited the fishing pier, and visited the Sea Gull Pier Restaurant and gift shop. We also walked around and looked at some of the vessels of various sizes heading to the harbor or the sea.

We pose on the pier with our new friend, Miguel, another visitor from abroad. Filippo is 2nd from the right.

Norfolk is a major harbor. It has the world's largest naval station and is important to commercial shipping as well. We had the opportunity to watch an aircraft carrier heading out to sea, probably the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, named after the former president. Due to the sharp eyes and loud cries of a group of children, we even spotted some dolphins breaching the water not far away from us.

The U.S.S. Harry S. Truman was easier to spot than the dolphins!

The visit gave Filippo a chance to see U.S. patriotism in action.

Filippo and Don check out the aircraft carrier.

The sign near Filippo expresses support for U.S. troops. Many families in our region have ties to the military.

A ship heads through the channel. Under it is the deep tunnel where we drove Filippo in our car. Part of the bridge is in the background.

In the afternoon, Filippo and I worked out at the local YMCA, and Filippo made an appointment to return for some training on how to use the exercise equipment there.

Yesterday our whole family, Filippo included, headed for Virginia Beach. Filippo has been very eager to see the Atlantic Ocean. It was a beautiful day, with rather gentle surf, cool but not cold water, overcast at first, but with sunshine breaking out by early afternoon. Even the jellyfish were on vacation, and I, for one, was thrilled with their absence. It was a perfect end to our summer together as a family. Soon I will be back to my teaching job, Filippo will be starting high school, and the hazy, lazy days of summer will be a quickly-fading memory.

The trips to the Bay Bridge Tunnel and to the Beach are examples of how hosting an AFS student is a richly rewarding experience. We enjoyed showing the beauties and excitement of our region with Filippo. But by doing so, we realized that we had missed visiting these favorite places. We especially decided that from now on we need to make at least one visit to the local beaches every summer, despite the fact that we dislike the work of getting ready to go as much as the tourist traffic. Some experiences are worth a little effort.

After the beach we were hungry, so we visited the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral. Afterwards we visited with our new AFS Liaison. Then Don and Filippo headed to Buffalo Wild Wings for some more male bonding time over television and American football. It wasn't a Redskins game, so I heard the local fans were not as rabid. No surprise there.

All I can say is, we are tired, and we are all going to sleep well tonight!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Adventures with Filippo: Our AFS Host Family Gets Started

Filippo (middle), Matthew, and I when we first meet. Filippo loves his Italian heritage. We love him!
 While I usually write about my family's own travels on these pages, starting today, I will be writing about our family's experiences with an exchange student from Europe. It will be a journey of our local places and daily routines, but influenced by the fresh perspectives, enthusiasms, and interests of our hosted son.

Our current family consists of myself, a Latin teacher, my husband, Don, a retired navy senior chief who is currently a local locksmith, and Matthew, my grown son from a previous marriage who has finished college. We also have two dogs, a house cat, and four backyard hens. We chose to host an exchange student through AFS because, long before Matthew was even born, my prior husband and I had hosted a student from Japan through AFS and had a positive experience.

Don and I decided to begin hosting again because Matthew was grown and (almost) gone, and because I was aware that there are many more high-school age students who desire to complete a school year in this country than there are U.S. families willing to host them.

What do I like about AFS?

  • It is an organization with long-standing experience. AFS has been organizing exchange programs since shortly after World War II.
  • Its history. It started as the American Field Service serving our armed forces during the wars. After World War II, AFS Intercultural Programs began with a mission of fostering understanding between nations and cultures in an effort to prevent future wars. 
  • These are missions and ideals I can relate to and want to help. Hosting an exchange student takes time and money, and the host families through AFS host out of the goodness of their hearts and to foster the AFS mission. They do not receive financial compensation for hosting. I think this says something positive about the type of families that AFS attracts and about the AFS experience.
  • I also like AFS's commitment to working with diverse families in terms of cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, income levels, etc.
  • AFS has a strong volunteer tradition. They have experienced AFS volunteers and support professionals. There is a safety net in place for both host parents and students.
  • AFS is careful about placement. It does a good job of matching students and families but always has a "plan B" if it turns out that this student and this particular family are not a workable match. It checks host families' backgrounds carefully and inspects homes before and after placements to make sure the students are safe and secure in their new homes.
  • AFS puts safety first. There are strong rules in place against the hosted students' use of drugs, alcohol, driving, or hitchhiking, and AFS makes these expectations clear to all involved. Students come with their own insurance, and host families are trained about what to do in case of illness or injury.
  • AFS is fun. The AFS students I have hosted have been positive about the AFS experience and enthusiastic about the organization. They want to get the most out of their experiences here that they can. They are interesting people to have around.

AFS says it enrolls students in the local public schools for the host families. This is partially true. AFS got the process started, and it made sure that the local school system will accept the exchange student. But we still needed to make an appointment, which we had this morning, to finalize paperwork, finish the enrollment process, and select courses. 

Filippo is Italian, but he was born in Germany and grew up there. He has never ridden on a school bus before because Germans take public transportation to school. He has also never had the opportunity to pick out his own classes. He made some great selections and seems happiest to be taking Spanish, his fourth language, and an introductory Marine Biology course, which apparently isn't offered at home. 

Filippo (right) is excited about his first ride in a school bus; at home he rides public transportation

Filippo seems much more comfortable about the start of the school year since he has met some of the teachers and students at his new school after our appointment with Guidance today. His new school has tremendous school spirit and a locally popular American football team. There is a big pre-season game on Saturday and our whole family plans to go. Despite the initial culture shock on Filippo's part, and the adjustment on our part of having a new family member, we seem to be off to a good start. Don and Filippo are at a local restaurant as I type, checking out the local sports scene and the local fans for the Washington Redskins. Knowing the popularity of the Redskins in this region of the country, the fans will be rabid. Don understands enough about football to give his new son a good introduction as they watch the game.

I just realized today that, through Filippo, I will get a chance to see what it is like to be a parent in the local public school system. My own son chose to attend a private boarding school, Culver Academies, located in Indiana. Matthew attended on scholarship. While my ex-husband and I had time and money for one or two visits to the school per year, we certainly missed many of the events that our son participated in. Now I get a chance to attend events, cheer our new son's team and school on, and be involved with teen life on a daily basis. I am looking forward to it.

Don and I both like teenagers. As a high school teacher, I work with them for 180 days per year. I love it. And Don is a retired Senior Chief for the U.S. Navy, where he mentored many young men. So this is an experience that feels good (and in some ways familiar) to both of us. We both have also traveled to other parts of the world and are open to other languages, cultures, and perspectives, as well as to sharing our own. And Matthew seems to be bonding with his "baby brother."

Filippo, who is very sociable, is making friends with everyone he meets. He has never had pet dogs or cats and has always wanted a beagle, so he has been spending some quality time with our dogs, especially with our beagle, Red, whom I got at my first chicken swap.

Update: This September (2014) over 300 AFS students are coming to the U.S. but still need host families. Might you be one of them? Check out this website to meet some of them.