Making Friends Through YFU
July 25, 2021 22:53
“You saved my life.” I was surprised and happy when Rick said this to me. We were talking about how we became friends through hosting with YFU. I was a YFU student to Japan in 1985 and it was a transformative experience for me.
I returned to Japan after college and lived there for eight years. My wife is Japanese and we moved to my hometown of St. Louis in 1999. In 2005 with four young children I told my wife that I wanted to give back to YFU and host a student. She thought I was crazy, but I finally convinced her to host a student from Japan. At the end of the year we were hooked and now we’re getting ready to host our 21st and 22nd students.
As a volunteer, I’ve placed most of the YFU students in St. Louis since 2008. In the Spring of 2014 Rick was teaching history and psychology at a school where I had placed two YFU students, Steffen from Germany and Frederik from Denmark. Steffen and Frederik loved taking Rick’s class and talking with him at lunch. They told him he would make a fantastic host dad, but Rick wasn’t so sure.
Frederik called me and asked me to talk to Rick. I called him and he told me that he would love to host, but he and his wife were just turning sixty and their own kids were long gone. “Who would want to live with an old couple?” Rick asked. For the next two months Rick and I continued the conversation about hosting. He told me he loved sports and music. He said he and his wife loved Germany and hoped to visit there someday.
I logged in the system and searched for the German kids who were still unplaced. A boy named Jasper from Hamburg made excellent grades, played soccer and studied the guitar. I called Rick and said, “I think I have the kid for you.” Rick looked at his profile and discussed it again with his wife before calling me with the good news that they would try it.
Jasper arrived at the end of August in 2014. It turned out to be a perfect match. Rick and Toni loved Jasper. I asked Jasper how he felt about not having host siblings. “Great!” he replied. “I don’t have to compete with anyone for attention because I’m the center of my host parents’ universe.” That same year I had a wonderful YFU son from Denmark named Emil. Rick and I got the boys together often and organized activities for all of the YFU students in our St. Louis community.
“You saved my life.” Rick said. “Before Jasper I was just going through the motions, but it’s awesome being a dad again and having such a positive impact on a kid from another country.” Rick and Toni went on to welcome five more YFU sons from Germany and also hosted boy from Denmark, Turkey and Finland. This year they’ll welcome a new YFU son from Austria.
Rick and I have become close friends. We still organize our YFU community’s activities, help run the orientations and coach our YFU indoor soccer team. We regularly meet on Saturday afternoon and we can talk for hours. This year we invited any host family who wants to join us. If any family wants to talk about their experience or has a question or concern they know they can always join us.
This past year was especially challenging and I was so thankful to have Rick’s support. We hosted an exchange son from Barcelona named Tomas for the 2020-21 school year. I had never worked so hard to get a student here. Through embassy closures, threats from our school not to accept him, and programs shutting down we could have given up easily. Fortunately we got Tomas here and he was a bright shining light in what was otherwise a very challenging year.
Rick’s student could not come so I asked Rick and Toni to be Tomas’ host uncle and aunt. I could not have asked for better support. Tomas saw Rick often and sometimes would sleep over for a weekend at their home. Tomas wrote “Tio Rick” in his phone contacts – “Uncle Rick” and he keeps in touch with both of us.
Rick and I are ready for another great YFU year together. We have the monthly activities planned for our community and recently held a meet and greet with new host families at a local shopping mall food court.
I’m thankful to YFU for a lot of things. It gave me a life changing experience to Japan and a second family who still keeps in touch with me more than thirty years later. I’m grateful for all of my YFU sons all over the world, and I’m grateful that YFU gave me one of my closest and dearest friends.
Author: Stephen Rutherford, YFU USA
An Exchange student, volunteer and Host family
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