Family knows no bounds or nationality, according to one Bryan County family whose sons and daughters include children from Korea, Italy and, soon, Japan. And no adoption papers needed.
Barbara and Brian Smith of Richmond Hill are in their second year of participating with the Greenheart foreign exchange student program. The international students spend the school year with the host family and attend public school.
"I never realized how fulfilling it was to have more kids and to be sharing a culture full-time with these kids," Bria Smith said. "They’ve grown to be part of our family."
Angelo Carbone, 17, from Italy and Jae Ho Lee, or Kenny, 15, from South Korea were the Smiths’ sons this year.
Lee’s mom suggested he participate in the exchange student program and he said was "really satisfied with this experience." He emailed and talked by Skype with the Smiths for months before he actually arrived.
"At first, I just thought I was going to learn English only, but as soon as I (knew) the Smith family and interacting with each other, I realized I’m going to experience the American culture and more than just learning English," Lee said.
Food and air conditioning were culture shocks for Angelo, who got in to the program after his brother participated.
"In the beginning, I was always freezing," Carbone said.
"Now he lowers it down all the time, makes it colder," Barbara Smith said with a laugh.
Family is what family does
From Taco Tuesday and home Nerf games to watching Korean dramas, there is an undeniable culture swap.
The family wouldn’t have it any other way.
"We grow our family. We love these kids immensely," Barbara Smith said, adding how the family gets to relive some of their experiences from military travel. "That’s one of things that I love about it. Even though we’re staying in our own living room, we’re getting to see the world."
Being host parents is not about material things, according to Brian Smith, but it is "leaving a legacy."
"We invest a lot of time. We invest energy. We invest the emotion in to these students," he said.
The family visited New York City. They also saw a NASCAR race during Hurricane Matthew evacuation. Brian Smith and Lee spend time watching soccer on TV and Carbone is his "driving buddy."
"I’ve learned to appreciate all of these students even more and appreciate what I have in life," Brian Smith said.
Making it work
The Smiths already had two children of their own, one a college student now and a son, Josiah. They admitted there was some schedule juggling.
Barbara Smith thinks many American families feel like they don’t have time to participate as hosts. But the family has committed to "make time."
"You do that for your kids," she said. "That’s what you do for family … if you make it a priority, you’re going to have the time."
"Stranger-danger," is the other top reason families hold back, according to Brian Smith.
"We’re very cautious of strangers," he said of that myth. "We’ve always been taught stranger-danger and don’t let anybody in your house. Have an alarm system. Have a guard dog or two. So, it’s not natural for people to kind of let their guard down and say ‘I’m going to allow these complete strangers, teenagers at that, to come in my house."
The host program vets the students who travel on a special visa and risk of losing their admittance if they break the law.
Still, the 10 months have not been without some as everyone adjusts and the students deal with some homesickness.
"Just like in any family, you’re going to have your problems," Barbara Smith said. "But every family has that. I think they learn pretty quick that we’re going to love them no matter what."
A home away from home
Brian Smith said one of the most difficult things was imparting that it was their house and they are not guesst. He finds setting a routine, rules and even assigning chores helps.
"When you get that vested interest, it builds synergy. When you build synergy, then you have a more cohesive family unit," Brian Smith said.
Carbone said he likes it because it showed "how a family goes," and made sense. But it was "totally different," for Lee who explained how they do not have chores in Korea and "just do stuff that we see."
"But I think the chore system is a really, really good system so I’m willing to go back to Korea and help mom doing the chores," he said.
Lee found his niche in table tennis and joined the school’s ping pong team. Carbone, already a saxophone player, was impressed to learn he could practice as an actual class. Band is not part of Italian school. Both participated on the RHHS cross country team and received several academic awards.
A lasting impression
"I would say it’s an amazing unique opportunity that not everyone is able to enjoy," Carbone said of his experience. "When you leave another country for so long and you learn another language, you start to think in another way and see the point of view of someone else."
"I think it really impacted my dream," Lee said. "My dream is to be a diplomat. I really want to work in the UN. It’s not totally determined, but I want to solve the problem between North Korea and South Korea. Reunify, that’s my dream."
Connie Polk was the local coordinator with CCI Greenheart, a division of Greenheart International, who organized the experienced. She is trying to promote the program and show any family on the fence that "it’s a really positive experience."
"You can look at it as ‘I’m afraid of somebody new coming into my house and changing everything or creating more work for me or I don’t have time’ or you can open it up as ‘I have room in my heart, so I’m going to make room in my home,’" Polk said. "And that’s what these people do."
The students will return to their home countries within the coming weeks. But the family has found ways to keep in touch.
"That’s the hard part, saying goodbye," Barbara Smith said. "But because of Skype and because of Whatsapp and Facebook, it’s not like they’re gone forever."
And the Smith family has already started talking with the two girls they will host next year.
"It’s just kind of neat how your world grows bigger and smaller at the same time," Barbara Smith said.