Finnigan is a model guard dog. No new visitor or unfamiliar mailman is safe from this little Bichon’s earnest yelps and barks of warning. But when Ginevra stepped off the plane from Italy and into the Thoma’s home for the first time, there wasn’t a single yip. “I don’t think he’s barked at her once!” host mom Liz marveled. Finnigan knew Ginevra was immediately part of the family. The rest of the Thoma family and community very quickly came to share that feeling.
18-year-old ‘Gini’ is spending the year with the Thoma’s in Michigan, far away from her home in northeastern Italy. But she has found a new home in the States, forming a particularly special bond with her host family. “I always wanted a little sister!” Gini gushed, explaining that she and her host sister Sam love to play games, watch television and do crafts together. Her host mom, Liz, notes what a good match that has made Gini for their family. “We have an only child, and see this as an opportunity for her to have a big sister for the school year,” Liz explained. “Almost every night, Sam is basically laying on top of [Gini] on the couch, watching TV,” she laughed.
Gini’s close connections have expanded outside of her host home and into her community. She has realized that in exchange, “you do things that you never think to do in your home country.” Part of that experience for Gini has been volunteer work. “I didn’t really ever volunteer [back in Italy], but now it’s a new thing I get to do,” she explained. Every week, she and her classmates visit an elderly care home, where they are paired with residents with varying memory disabilities. The students then help them write down a memory journal of their lives. Gini’s unique presence helped forge a fortuitous connection with one particular resident. “Gini got matched up with someone who had been to Italy,” Liz said. “They got to reminisce about Italy together, which was great.”
Gini also spends time with several autistic students each week, meeting with and playing games with them. Her local Aspect coordinator, Pam, noted what an impact Gini has had, even sharing this volunteer spirit with her fellow exchange students. “She encouraged the exchange student to make tote bags for young adults with autism based on her experience at school,” Pam shared. “It’s been a good experience for all.”
Gini has certainly made the most of her time in the U.S. “Each [exchange student] brings something different,” Liz explained. “And it doesn’t end when they leave, they’re just now part of our family. They enrich our lives, not just for the months they are here, but for the whole of our lives.” Still, as the first hints of spring start to bloom, Gini is eager to hold onto her time here with her new American family.
“I don’t want to go back!” she said.
Her host family, even Finnigan, agrees.