Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 5:52 PM on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Needed: Volunteers for student exchange program

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

Through AFS, an intercultural student exchange program, Terri Spigelmyer has spent the last 14 years promoting peace.

"What AFS is all about is promoting peace and it's one student at a time," said Spigelmyer. "You're not going to go to war with your family, and we now have family all around the world."

Over the years, she and her family have been a home-away-from-home for six students from foreign countries coming to study in Homer. She also has served as chairman and hosting coordinator of the local AFS chapter.

Lyn Maslow has been involved with the program for 10 years. Her family has been a host family for three in-coming students and she has served as the chapter's secretary and, informally, as Spigelmyer's co-chair.

However, the time has come to hand over the reins, Spigelmyer and Maslow said.

"The struggle I'm having now is that all my children have graduated so I'm no longer connected to the families in high school. I want (AFS) to continue in Homer. I just can't be the one to do it," said Spigelmyer.

Her preference is to have both positions — chapter chairman and hosting coordinator — filled, but if someone will pick up the hosting coordinator role, she will continue as chairman until the chapter dissolves in 2013.

While having a Homer chapter allows fundraising done at the local level to be used specifically to assist Homer students going abroad through the program, the workload to keep the chapter going has become too heavy for Homer's small group of volunteers.

As with Spigelmyer, Maslow's children also have graduated from high school.

"It would be wonderful to get someone to jump in and continue this who has a family with younger kids, in elementary and middle school. ... They get a big brother relationship that's pretty special," said Maslow, reflecting on the benefit of being a host family when her children were younger.

Spigelmyer is a firm believer in the AFS program. She first became involved as a host parent to foreign students when her children were 5, 7 and 9. Since then, she and her family have visited each of the students in their home countries.

"We've been to Turkey several times. We've been to Vienna, to Italy. We've been to Brazil for our exchange daughter's wedding two springs ago. It really opens your eyes to the rest of the world," said Spigelmyer.

The closest AFS office with paid staff is in Portland, Ore. Then there's the Alaska area team, comprised of people from around the state that head up different activities in support of AFS. In addition to Spigelmyer and Maslow, the Homer chapter includes volunteer treasurer Peter Larson. As hosting coordinator, Spigelmyer helps find most families, walks them through the application process and then reviews online student applications to match students with families.

Homer has an average of two Homer students going abroad and two students coming to Homer per year, with more or less some years. Spigelmyer estimates she has assisted 100 students in her years with AFS.

"It's like matchfamily.com. You're looking to try to make the best experience for host families, communities and students," she said.

The AFS program has specific benefits to a community the size of Homer.

"I know a number of students in our high school who haven't been on an airplane, many who haven't gone across the bay. We're bringing the world to them," said Spigelmyer.

Kaya Moreli, a senior at Homer High School, brings Spigelmyer's words to life. Kaya heard about AFS from a friend who went to the Netherlands for the 2009-2010 school year. As a result, Kaya spent the 2010-2011 school year in Switzerland. She counts learning a new language and being immersed in a "new family, school, peers and cultural experience" the most rewarding part of her time there. This year, Kaya's family is hosting Vegard Unhjem, a high school senior from Isfjorden, Norway.

"He seems to be fitting right in, whether at school, home, with friends, in sports," said Kaya. "He seems really comfortable and motivated in everything, which is a super positive characteristic to have on exchange. It's interesting to be part of the exchange experience from both sides.

Having had opportunities to connect with people from other corners of the world and seeing how the program "breaks down country stereotypes to help people better understand vast differences in cultures better," Kaya is now volunteering as a junior liaison with a Japanese student at HHS this year.

The time to match student applications and families is quickly approaching. Spigelmyer likes to have that done before June so students and host families can begin planning and getting acquainted electronically. Having a new hosting coordinator to work with Spigelmyer through that process would make for a smooth transition.

"If anyone is interested, call me and I would be happy to involve anybody that's interested," said Spigelmyer. "If there is more than one person interested, I'd let them share that responsibility and the fun of reviewing applications of students and seeing what might be a good fit. The more the merrier."

Spigelmyer can be reached at either 235-1007, 235-1008 or by emailing terris@ak.net.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.