by Nathan Warner
For Judith Geusen, a letter from Zimmerman changed her life.
“I can still remember the day I got my host family letter introducing the Snyder family to me, and I was so excited,” she said. “I couldn’t even believe that my dream of becoming an exchange student was finally coming true!”
Judith received the letter from Ayusa Global Youth Exchange in her hometown of Lessenich, on the western side of Germany, near Cologne. It told her she would be coming to Minnesota.
This adventure into student hosting began months before when Lori and Tim Snyder’s son left home for college.
“We became empty-nesters,” Lori Snyder recalled, “and we just wanted to have a kid in the house again.”
She ran across Ayusa’s website while searching for student-hosting programs and filled out the Ayusa application that same day. Lori said she and her husband both really enjoy children, staying active and experiencing new things.
“We had the space at home and felt like we had a lot to offer,” she said. “It sounded like an experience that we would truly enjoy.”
At the same time, more than 4,000 miles away, Geusen was dreaming of visiting America to continue her high school experience. Ayusa Senior Regional Director, Central States, Jennifer Linn bridged that 4,000-mile gap and made the match possible.
“I personally reviewed the Snyders’ application and provided them with three student profiles that I thought would be a good match; Judith was one of those profiles,” Linn said.
Lori and Tim Snyder reviewed the profiles and chose to host Geusen. Linn lined everything up with Zimmerman High School, which hosts foreign exchange students regularly, and mailed the acceptance letter across the Atlantic Ocean.
When Geusen found the letter in the mail, she was ecstatic and immediately began to correspond with the Snyders – not by post or email, but via Skype. They first met face-to-face half a world away through the video conferencing tool and began to share about themselves. Over their Skype conversations, Lori Snyder learned that Geusen was a tennis player. When Geusen landed in Minnesota, she was excited to discover her host mom had taken notes.
“Lori got me on the Elk River tennis team!” Geusen exclaimed. “I was so happy because she did everything she could to get me on the team – and that’s where I met my two best friends, Makayla and Lexi.”
As Geusen set about getting to know her new school and adjusting to the Zimmerman routine, she felt very welcomed and included in the family activities.
“We always had a lot of fun together, and I particularly enjoyed the little things such as going grocery shopping with them or simply going to the movies on the weekends,” she said. On weekends when they didn’t have anything planned, Lori and Tim Snyder always made sure Geusen had time to spend with her friends. They also understood that maintaining contact to her family at home in Germany was very important to her.
Geusen loved sharing her German heritage with the Snyders and getting to know American culture at the same time. She immediately bonded with Lori Snyder over their common interest in arts and crafts.
“I loved helping my host mom with her craft fair work and other little projects,” Geusen said.
Around Christmas, they made blankets for her host brother, host dad, host grandmother and even for her family in Germany. Of special significance to Geusen was the present she made her host dad.
“My present to Tim was a painting of a firefighter’s helmet on an American flag, in honor of his work as a volunteer firefighter,” Geusen said. Tim has been a volunteer firefighter in Zimmerman for more than 16 years. One of Geusen’s fondest memories of her stay in Minnesota was when Tim opened this present. “The reaction on his face was priceless,” she said, laughing.
“Judith is an amazing person,” Lori Snyder said. “And we couldn’t have enjoyed or grown to love her more than if she were our own daughter.”
The Snyders said they were able to share and watch many special experiences with Geusen: riding a four-wheeler for her first time, attending different Minnesota sporting events, traveling on a trip to California, going to Florida on a vacation, making new friends, being involved in Zimmerman High School, playing on the tennis team and dance competition teams, and shopping together.
“Just having her here in general was a blessing, and we will miss her terribly,” Lori Snyder said.
While Geusen was hosted through Zimmerman High School, many foreign students are hosted through Spectrum High School in Elk River, according to Linn.
“I’ve had the honor of working with Spectrum for three years now, and in that time alone, they’ve accepted 14 students from Ayusa who came from cultures as diverse as Germany, Italy, Jordan, Israel, Ecuador, Sweden, Mexico, Japan, India and Korea,” Linn said.
Due to Spectrum’s involvement in the program, Linn nominated Spectrum High School for the “High School of the year award” for the Central States Region for 2012-2013. They won the honor, and Linn said Spectrum was also awarded a plaque from the Department of State for having 3 YES (Youth Exchange and Study) scholarship students over three years in their high school. The YES program particularly seeks to bring students between the ages of 15-17 from Muslim countries to the U.S. for a year with a mission to create understanding between cultures and create a sense of “family.”
This mission is important to Linn.
“For me, Ayusa means family,” she said. “We now have extended family all over the world that we will cherish and love for a lifetime.” She and her husband have hosted nine students from Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Sweden in the past five years – six of whom have attended Spectrum.
Linn said an Ayusa host family offers open-minded and hardworking high school students from a different country the opportunity to study in an American high school for five to 10 months, experience a new culture, benefit from the generosity and hospitality of a host family, build lifelong friendships and develop language and leadership skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
“At Ayusa, we believe one connection has the power to change the world, because the new energy and understanding that fills your home from a visiting student will initiate a ripple effect that extends to the local school, community, and ultimately the world,” Linn said.
That connection recently happened for the Snyders and Geusen. Geusen graduated from Zimmerman High School and nominated her host family for Ayusa’s “Host Family of the Month” – an award they won.
“The Snyders have shown Judith so much about American culture and have truly treated her as their own,” Linn said. “I feel blessed to have such great host families that have opened their homes and hearts to help show deserving exchange students an experience they will cherish for a lifetime.” Geusen took that experience with her when she left Minnesota on Wednesday to return to Germany.
“I was, and am still, very grateful that I have such understanding and supportive host parents,” Geusen said. “It was great to know that they trusted me and supported me, especially in times of homesickness or just after a bad day at school.”
She said it felt great to see them at the end of the day and talk to them.
“After a short time, it already felt like I had known them for years,” Geusen reflected. “Lori and Tim are just wonderful and caring host parents that made so many things possible for me. I can’t thank them enough.”
For Lori and Tim Snyder, the feeling is mutual.