Patty and Bill’s red Hyundai is a conversation starter in grocery store parking lots all around town. “Are those all of your kids?” incredulous people ask, marveling at the smiling sticker family stretching the entire length of the rear window. “Yes,” Patty always says proudly.
Sixteen Aspect exchange students now call a small town in Kansas home, after seventeen years of Patty and Bill hosting and expanding their international family. “It’ll be a forever friendship,” said Patty. “I could talk forever about our girls.” As soon as their two sons graduated high school, Patty and Bill had exchange daughters filling their home with energy and curiosity. “We’ve never been without kids,” Patty laughed. And though most of their daughters are now grown and far away, the family still makes a point of getting together often.
Over the summer, Patty and Bill took a five and a half week trip to Europe, connecting with 11 of their exchange daughters during family reunions and gatherings that brought them all together again. These reunions happen almost every two years, and give Patty and Bill a chance to maintain the relationships that all started during a high school exchange year in the heart of Kansas. “We never in our wildest wildest dreams ever expected anything like this,” Patty marveled. “It’s just such an added bonus that we didn’t expect.”
This year’s trip included a gathering of five daughters in Norway for six days, a second reunion in Milan with six daughters, a relaxing week at a seaside home in Monaco, a tour around Italy including Venice, Pisa and Rome, and a last minute stop to celebrate their Swedish daughter’s wedding in Gothenburg. The girls’ natural families have welcomed the extended exchange family with open arms, offering their homes and local knowledge freely to create what Patty describes as “one big slumber party.” One of the particularly touching moments of this trip came when one of their very first French exchange students had a family vacation already planned that coincided with Patty and Bill’s stay near Lake Como. “We hadn’t seen her in five years, and we sat down and it was like she was here yesterday,” Patty said, choking up. Their connection runs deep; Patty had made the trip several years ago to France to visit her daughter after she gave birth to her first child.
With a suitcase full of “wishlist” items in tow – Oreos, macaroni and cheese, and Bath & Body Works products topping the list – Patty and Bill greet their large family like the parents and grandparents that they are. When the trips are over, they all keep in touch through a Facebook page and regular Skype and email chats.
It’s hard to believe while flipping through the hundreds of photos of their enormous, happy family, that there was a time that Patty and Bill were not interested in hosting. Their first exchange experience through another organization was not a positive one. “Afterwards,” Patty explained, “I said, ‘never ask me to do this again.’” But exchange had a way of seeking them out. After a positive last-minute experience hosting a dance student from Russia, they were game for another try. “We thought, ok, we can do this,” Patty said. And the rest is history.
Through the years of welcoming new daughters into their growing brood, and later becoming Aspect coordinators to help other host families do the same, they have learned a lot. Getting their students involved in a school sport or activity right away is a must, they say. “We also try to choose our students early so we can have a lot of correspondence with them before they arrive. That makes a really big difference,” Patty explained. More than anything, they have learned to recognize the similarities between cultures and people and create lifelong friends around the world. “Absolutely do it,” Patty exclaimed, “take the risk!”
The back windshield of their car may be running out of room, but it’s clear that Patty and Bill have plenty of space in their hearts for all the people that now call them family.