Exchange is a Family Affair

“Hello, my name is Sabine and I live in Berlin. Can I come and live with you?”

It all started with a letter. This is the story of two families and the three generations of incredible connection and cultural exchange between them.

It was 1987, nearing the end of the Cold War, and Sabine was a German teenager growing up in West Berlin. “I always dreamed of going to America, finding out how life is there, experiencing the school spirit that was said is so much different from what we used to know,” Sabine recalled.

But money was tight, and when a scholarship application did not come through, her American dream seemed out of reach. That is, until Sabine’s mother heard from a family friend in Hannover who had a son spending an exchange year in Nebraska. He had recently moved to a new American host family who had extended a particularly warm welcome. “He found the Sall family,” Sabine explained, “which was not only a great fortune for him, but as it would turn out to be for me, as well.”

Sabine and her daughter, on a visit to Maribeth and Ray in 2004, sign a wall in their basement filled with messages from exchange students and guests.

So, young Sabine wrote a letter to Ray and Maribeth Sall in Chappell, Nebraska, and waited for the mail every day. A few weeks later, the “yes” came. With little more than a photograph of the family in hand, Sabine prepared for her year in the U.S.

“In the summer of ’87, I left for a real adventure!” she said.

The new hosts of her adventure were Ray and Maribeth, whose exchange story had started three years earlier with the arrival of their first international student. They opened their home to Sabine, including her in their holiday traditions and daily life. “Maribeth helped me in sewing my projects for school, and I helped her sew new kitchen curtains,” Sabine recalled. “Ray helped me with some book reports. I remember he suggested the book My Antonia to me, a book about the frontier life on the Great Plains.”

Sabine took full advantage of her high school year in America, playing on the volleyball team, learning how to sew, cook and use a typewriter. She dissected fish with her classmates, examined water samples in her science classes and participated in piano and national math contests. “School was so life-oriented and gave you much more practical values than what I had experienced at home,” she reflected.

She returned to Germany at the end of the school year with new skills, friends, and most importantly, new family.

The Sall family had grown, too. Sabine joined their brood of international “children”, including almost 15 exchange students from all over the world, including Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

“We started hosting to broaden our horizons,” Ray explained, “to get beyond Chappell, Nebraska,” Maribeth added.

This initial desire quickly bloomed into a way of life for the Salls. Both of their natural children went on to study abroad themselves – their daughter in Japan, and their son, Steve, in Germany.

Steve recalled sharing his childhood with several different exchange students. “It was really nice to have people there from other cultures,” Steve concluded. “My parents said, ‘You know, we really don’t have the money to travel a lot, but we can bring this experience to you.’”

The two families stayed connected through the years, exchanging Christmas cards, letters, and visiting one another’s homes several times. Shortly after Sabine’s exchange year, Ray and Maribeth traveled to Berlin, this time as guests in her home. They visited the Berlin Wall (still very much intact) with Sabine’s mother, an experience they will never forget. “She was always looking over her shoulder, to keep us safe,” Maribeth recalled.

Then, in 2004, Sabine returned to the Sall’s home in Chappell, Nebraska with her husband and two young children. Sabine’s son, Leon, was seven at the time. Leon remembered meeting Ray and Maribeth for the first time. “We had a lot of pictures [of them] at home, so I connected them with my memories,” he recalled.

During that visit, Maribeth had a feeling about young Leon.

“In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘He’ll be coming back to study,’” she said.

Leon, his host parents, Steve and Mayra, and host brother Alex visit Steve’s parents, Ray and Maribeth.

She was right. Leon is now 16 years old, and half-way through an exchange year in Nebraska. And he is living with none other than Ray and Maribeth’s son, Steve, and his wife Mayra.

“I always wanted to [go on exchange], and I think my mom wanted me to do it too,” Leon explained, “but it was my decision.” After Leon expressed the desire to study in the States, it was time for Sabine to write another letter. She asked Steve and Mayra if they’d be interested in hosting Leon. “We said yes, absolutely,” Steve affirmed.

Leon was accepted as an Aspect Foundation exchange student, who helped to place Leon with Steve and Mayra Sall. “They helped us to make Leon’s stay in Nebraska possible,” Sabine said.

Ray and Maribeth are thrilled that Steve has had the opportunity to become a host parent himself, and that their relationship with Leon’s family has continued on into a new generation. Sabine agreed. “I am so thankful that the Salls (senior and junior) have given us the opportunity of experiencing not only another culture but also of letting us be part of their family,” she said.

Brotherly love: Leon goofs around with his new host brother, Alex.

Leon has followed in his mother’s footsteps, diving into his exchange year and getting actively involved in all it has to offer. He is in the school choir, plays on the soccer team, and in the marching band. He plays drums, guitar and trumpet, and has a booming social life. “He is tremendously busy,” Steve said. “It’s been a good insight into what having a teenager in the house will be like.”

Julie, Leon’s local Aspect coordinator, affirms what a great match he has been with the Sall family. “He just exceeds expectations when it comes to being polite and responsible,” she offered.

In addition to his many activities, Leon has bonded with the Sall’s 11-year-old son, Alex. They like relaxing together, playing video games and are already looking forward to the day they can travel to Germany together. “We have a really good relationship,” Leon beamed. That relationship may prove to continue the familial tradition of exchange. “I hope one day their son Alex will come and study here in Berlin,” Sabine said.

The years of international exchange between these two families have created a strong bond between them, and also to the greater world. “People you know, you have lived with and laughed with, are not foreigners any longer. You try to understand their attitudes toward different fields of life,” Sabine explained. “And if you are lucky, you make dear and special friends for a lifetime.” The story that began with a letter is certainly not finished, but it is an incredible one so far.

Maribeth said with a chuckle, “Well we’ve enjoyed living it!”

Check back later this week for a special advice posting from Ray, Maribeth, Steve, Sabine and Leon on being a host parent, a natural parent or exchange student!