Youth For Understanding opens eyes to world of exchange programs

HARRISBURG – When my daughter, Maggie, completed her sophomore year at Harrisburg High School, she informed her mother and I she was interested in going to Germany as an exchange student.

Her mother though it was wonderful but I thought they were both completely crazy. I wasn't going to let my little girl of 15 go out into the world, especially to Europe!

We had previously taken all the kids to Rome and Paris a few years earlier and there was absolutely, positively, no way was I going to let her go. I knew exactly how I was going to fix this. I knew my parents would be on my side.

So about a week later we had a family gathering and I was sure if I mentioned Maggie's insane idea my family would help shoot it down.

So as everyone sat down to eat I said, "Maggie has this foolish idea of going to Germany this fall as an exchange student."

I was ready to bask in the glory of everyone rushing to my rescue when I heard my Aunt Lyn say "That's a great idea!" Then my brother-in-law Larry said, "I hosted a student and it was wonderful."

I knew my father would have my back, then he said, "That sounds like a good idea."

Devastated by the "betrayal" I agreed to meet with the Area Representative, Christine Austin.

Maggie completed her application and we meet with Christine. She explained the program, the screening process the host families had to go through and how Youth for Understanding would keep an eye on her. A week before her 16th birthday Maggie was gone and had one of the best years of her life.

When Maggie returned, Christine suggested we host a student. I thought that was an even crazier idea. I didn't want a strange kid moving into my house but as a family we started reading the application letters from students wanting to come to the States.

One student stood out, "Niklas of Germany."

Our oldest son had just left for college and we had an extra room so I gave in and agreed to host. With nervous anticipation we awaited his arrival and when he got off the plane he walked over, introduced himself, gave us a hug, and instantly became part of our family.

After a wonderful 10 months of getting to know our "Nik," sharing our culture and looking at America through his eyes we all cried at the airport when he left us.

We have now hosted another three students: Edouard of France, Emil of Norway and Alex of the Russian Federation. Each of these young men became part of our family in unique and special ways.

We experienced great joy in watching them experience Southern Illinois from Garden of the Gods to becoming Harrisburg Bulldogs. They taught us so many interesting things about their cultures, but the most important thing we learned is you can never have enough people love.

YFU is a non-profit international educational organization in more than 50 different countries.

Youth for Understanding started in the United States in 1951 in an effort to heal the wounds of World War II.

More than ever, the world needs YFU. Cultural immersion leaves lasting impressions that ripple out, affecting others around you.

The YFU intercultural exchange program is unique in how they offer you the journey of a lifetime: an adventure that reveals the best in people and enables you to make lifelong connections that will change your global perspective.

Now YFU is needing host families for this fall and our family would like to encourage you to do the same.

More information is available at or contact the area representative, Christine Austin, at if interested in hosting or becoming a student.

Russell is a Harrisburg businessman and Harrisburg Unit 3 School Board member.