A summer scramble to find foreign students a home Organizers stake out stores and post signs

July 04, 1996|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Gregg Jones didn't think it would come to this: There he was -- the man in charge of finding summer homes for 20 Japanese exchange students -- standing in front of a Giant supermarket last week, searching for strangers with empty beds and open minds.

"People were running in and out with their groceries, and I talked to anyone I could," said Jones, who found at least four host families at the Timonium grocery store.

Diane Bieretz needed to find host families, too, for 16 French students who will visit Baltimore for three weeks starting Monday.

But Bieretz, a local coordinator for International Education Forum, a New York-based nonprofit exchange group, had more luck with homemade signs -- painted and stenciled, on boards and pink paper, tacked on streetlights and at corners around Mount Washington and Roland Park.

The signs, at home with the notices for yard sales, lost dogs and lawn care services that surround them, typically say little more than "French Students Need Host Families. Call "

"You never know who you're going to get that way, but I've never had a goofy person call me," Bieretz said.

Street signs? Supermarket solicitation? It's part of the annual scramble to find host families for the short-term spring and summer exchange students who come to Baltimore and other U.S. cities to practice English and experience American culture.

"It's not like you have a glut of families out there that are begging to host students. It does end up going down to the wire sometimes," said Rodney Baker, a regional liaison for IEF, which will place about 1,255 foreign students in homes in Maryland and New Jersey this season. "Especially this time of year, it gets very stressful."

If Bieretz, a two-time host parent, doesn't seem worried about the kinds of people who'll cruise by her signs and jot down her phone number, it's because she learned about the exchange program from a sign at her swim club two years ago.

She signed up to house 16-year-old Herve because she thought the experience would be interesting for her three children.

"It's fun to have somebody different give you a different perspective on things," Bieretz said. "When we made French toast for Herve, he laughed and said, 'We don't have this in France, and if they did, it wouldn't be very popular.' "

When prospective parents called Bieretz's number, they learned that they didn't need to speak French or have experience abroad to qualify as a host family.

"Lots of love, an extra bed and willingness to provide meals and some transportation," as one of the fliers puts it, are the main requirements. For the IEF program, local coordinators such as Bieretz are responsible for making a home visit and checking the references of prospective families.

"The general rule is, you don't put the child anywhere where you wouldn't want your child to stay," said Don Merson, IEF's regional director for mid-Atlantic states. "We haven't had any serious problems."

One notable exception was the Maryland family that put its exchange student to work cleaning the oven, doing laundry, even baby-sitting for their friends. When the coordinator found out, Merson said, the student was moved to a new family.

The seemingly unsophisticated and random attempts to find host families actually work, say Bieretz and other organizers, and it's rare to have to place more than one student in a home. But this doesn't mean there aren't panicky moments and flurries of sign-posting as arrival dates for the foreign students near.

"When you're the parent in France, you think the families in America are waiting with open arms," said Natalie Ellis, who was host of a 17-year-old French youth two years ago and later visited France and met his family. "When I told his mother about the signs posted all over, she was surprised."

Added Ellis' husband, Charles: "I don't think they have signs plastered all over France."

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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