Reconnection: Finding family and friends from your exchange
July 25, 2021 22:53
A LONG TIME AGO…
I went on exchange with YFU back in 1987. I was placed in Belgium with a family in a small town called Braine-le-Comte, southwest of Brussels. The family consisted of the mother, father, a brother my age, an overweight cocker spaniel named Babette, and a very large rabbit named Khadafy.
Nearby lived a recently returned YFU alumna who was responsible for placing me with my host family. She also placed two other American students in the neighborhood.
I became very attached to my family, friends, and town. I loved my experience, I loved my host family, I loved my friends.
When the exchange ended, I was desperately sad. I was – and still am – prone to adopting and internalizing my environment and the people in it. I “become” where I am. It was very hard for me to leave, but so it must be, and so I went home.
We stayed in touch, my host family and friends and me. This was the 80s, so we didn’t call or email or share on social media. Calling was too expensive, and the rest didn’t exist. We wrote letters back and forth. Sometimes they were group letters, where everyone gathered around back in Braine-le-Comte would each write a sentence or paragraph. This kept up with some frequency at first, then more occasionally as one year, then two years, went by. Sometime in 1991 was the last time I was in touch.
At that time, I was in college. My life had changed a lot and my spirit was kind of in flux. I didn’t write back after the last letter I received, and so the distance of time grew from a stream to an ocean.
ACROSS AN OCEAN OF TIME
I never forgot my host family. My experience stayed with me always. I’ve volunteered with YFU on and off for more than 30 years. But as each year passed, I still didn’t reach out to my host family. So much time had passed I wasn’t sure how. I could write to the old address, but what to say? When social media became a thing, if you can believe it, it didn’t occur to me to use it to try finding my host family and friends.
But I started thinking more and more of that time. I even had a dream that I visited my host family, and we were all speaking French. As COVID dragged on here (I live in New York City), and as I contemplated life and relationships, I started thinking about seeking out my host family.
70TH ANNIVERSARY: REMEMBER, RECONNECT, REBIRTH
In March, I started getting involved with the YFU 70th Anniversary Celebration planning and it inspired me to try to find my host family, in the spirit of reconnecting, which is one of the themes of the anniversary celebrations and a dominant theme for all of us as we begin emerging from some of the isolation COVID has brought.
And so, I did. I took steps that were easy, and within a little over a week’s time, I was doing a video call with my host brother and the YFU alumna friend who helped place me.
What did I do?
ROAD TO RECONNECTING
The following steps are the ones I took that reconnected me with two of the most important people from my exchange. If you’ve lost touch over the years – this can be particularly true for older alumni – these steps can work for you, too.
STEP 1. HAVE A PROPERLY SPELLED NAME; IF NOT THAT, THE NAME OF THE TOWN YOU WERE IN COULD HELP
Depending on how long it has been since you were on exchange, you may have forgotten names and spellings. I recently was in touch with an alumna who had gone to Japan a long time ago. She couldn’t remember the last name of the family. Without a name, the only other thing to go on is where you were placed.
I remembered the spelling of the surname of my host family, but it isn’t that uncommon a name in Belgium or the surrounding countries. But I was lucky. I had a bag of old memorabilia from my exchange – journal, ticket stubs, letters – and among them was an address card of the YFU alumna, with both her first and last name, and her address on it.
STEP 2. USE A PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM
Facebook is everywhere. So is Instagram. But they are also rather personal. If it has been a long time since you’ve been in touch, a more professional setting might be better to start off with. I typed in my lost friend’s name into LinkedIn and searched. There were a lot of matching names. So, I scrolled through each of them and scanned the basic elements of their profiles. In one, I found that she had the name of the town I had lived in listed as where she was based. Maybe this is the right person?
STEP 3. MAKE CONTACT!
I wrote a brief note. I opened with a formal “hello,” and wrote who I am, asking if she was who I thought she was, asking if she remembered me if she was the person I am looking for, and then a few details about me and what I remembered from the exchange. I mentioned that it was in the spirit of the 70th anniversary that got me thinking about my exchange experience and the people with whom I shared it. I then closed by saying if she was who I thought, and she wanted to reconnect, I hope to hear back.
She wrote back the next day, sharing her email, mobile, and update on her life and some of those people I’d mentioned. She is still friends with my host brother, so she also sent me his contact information, and told me that she told him we’d been in touch.
STEP 4. SCHEDULE A MEET!
I wrote her back, sent my host brother an email. We all connected on Facebook, and by the time a week had passed, we had exchanged many messages and had scheduled an online video call. Over the last 2 months, we’ve had 3 video calls and lots of Messenger conversations. We’ve shared pictures and stories and had just general “how are you?,” conversations.
BACK IN TOUCH…
I was lucky. I found the right person from the start, who happened to be a YFU alumna herself, who remembered me and was still in touch with my host family and some of the others from my exchange experience. And who was excited to reconnect. It might be harder for you: an incomplete name; deceased host parents; people who aren’t online in a way that makes them easy to find. Maybe they don’t want to reconnect.
Whatever the case might be, reaching out is worth it. After all, you will miss 100% of the goals you don’t try to make.
YFU USA Alumni