When her daughter Mackenzie, then a junior in high school, came home one day from school asking if the family could host an exchange student, Kathy didn’t need to think twice. “It was a no brainer,” she says. “We had wonderful exchange students when I was in high school, and I thought that was great. We still keep in touch and see each other at class reunions even after 10, 20 years.” With firsthand experience of the lasting impacts of an exchange year, Kathy welcomed Mackenzie’s suggestion. She had only been waiting to do this herself.
Of course, the decision wasn’t completely without hesitation. The family was aware that adding another member to the family would mean additional cost. However, they soon realized that the additional cost wasn’t going to be significant. “Mackenzie always has friends over anyway,” Kathy says.
And so begins the story of what seems to have been a match made in heaven. The family hosted Sarah from Germany. However, it wasn’t exactly Sarah that they were looking for at first. Mackenzie recalls, “At first we thought a French student would be fun, because I took French in high school and so did my mom. But there were no more French students.”
Far from being discouraged, they continued to look through student profiles. “And then we read Sarah’s,” recalls Mackenzie, “and it just made sense.” To both Mackenzie and Kathy’s surprise, this German girl, who was halfway across the globe from Washington, had so much in common with Mackenzie. From their age, to being only children, to their love for music, playing the guitar, and cats, their commonalities stood out from the beginning.
Kathy’s favorite memory of this is when she saw Sarah’s pictures for the first time. “The minute I opened up the first picture, I was like, what did I do.” She was stunned. She thought a German Mackenzie was staring at her through the computer screen. “It was a picture of Sarah standing in a cornfield, face paint all over her face – just this empowering young girl, being her total goofy self. She could not have been more similar to Mackenzie,” Kathy says. “I thought, out of all pictures she could have chosen, like a nice profile, or a yearbook picture, she chose this one? – YES.”
The family soon got to meet Sarah in person a few months later in August. Interestingly enough, it was along with Sarah’s natural family, and in Paris, when they met for the first time. The story goes that when Sarah’s natural parents found out that the host family was taking a trip around Europe prior to the exchange year, they gladly arranged to travel to Paris from Germany to meet up with them. The families spent the entire 24 hours together in Paris that day, hopping on tour busses together and going sightseeing. “The best part of the day though,” Kathy says, “was getting to casually sit down with the natural parents and talk about expectations – what we were each nervous about and such.” Talking fondly of the memory, she also adds, “We also learned that day that pickled ornaments are a total hoax – they knew of no such thing in Germany! It was so funny; this is now an inside joke between me and Sarah’s mom.”
When the exchange year officially began in Washington however, Sarah wasn’t an exception to homesickness. Mackenzie remembers, “When Sarah first got here, she was so nervous. She was so nervous that when we took her to Subway after she landed, she didn’t even want to talk to the person to order the sandwich in English.” However, the family knew that adjustment was simply going to come with time. “The culture is so different,” Mackenzie says, “I think it’s important for the family to try to make it as comfortable as possible. And not try to force anything.” With each day, everything became more normal. By the time school started, it was as if Sarah had always been there.
“Christmas was emotional because by that point, Sarah and I were basically sisters. Her mom sent us matching things from Germany. And Sarah got me two clocks for me to take with me to college – one was set to the time in Germany, and one to the time here. Then she wrote me all these letters – each was labeled different occasions like ‘open when you want to laugh,’ ‘open when you want to know how much I love you’ – I haven’t opened that one yet because it would make me cry,” Mackenzie says.
The family certainly had cried enough when Sarah left. “This song called ‘Stolen Dance,’” Kathy recalls, “it’s by a German artist. It became a family song over the year, and the lyrics go something like ‘I want you back.’ Coincidentally, this song started playing on the radio on when we were on our way back from the airport after we dropped Sarah off. And I just started bawling. When we got back to the house, I couldn’t go back in.”
Inside the house, there were sticky notes everywhere. “I already knew. She must have used about two pads of sticky notes,” Kathy says. Sarah had posted sticky notes on every corner of the house, to thank and commemorate the amazing, unforgettable exchange year she spent there with the family. “It was all of our inside jokes, and on an album it would be like, ‘take a picture of yourself and send it to me’…Oh and – one thing she never grew to like here was American bread. And I opened our bread drawer and there would be a sticky note that says, ‘Yup, still don’t like it.’” The entire house, covered in sticky notes, was proof to how much Sarah had become a part of the family and their lives. “Mackenzie was still crying and she just went straight into her room. She couldn’t even look at the sticky notes.” Kathy says.
To their relief, this was a see-you-later, not a goodbye. “We’re definitely invited back [to Germany,]” Kathy says, “and I’m taking them up on it.” Invited ‘back,’ she says, because Sarah’s natural family already made their visit to the United States. It was a surprise visit for the end of Sarah’s exchange year. “Sarah didn’t know this but her parents flew in. The day before graduation, my husband Troy and I ‘hid them in a hotel room,’ while Mackenzie was keeping Sarah busy. The next day, they got to see Sarah and they were all hugging. This was so funny – while Sarah was hugging her mom, I saw Sarah’s dad poking Sarah from the side, and he kept touching her, like ‘are you real.’” The natural family stayed with the host family for three more weeks after that. “The night of graduation, all of us and our good friends who Sarah now calls ‘aunties and uncles,’ got a 12-seat van and drove out together. We found a German bar that was playing Oom-pah music with people in original lederhosen; we ate schnitzel and danced the chicken dance together,” Kathy shares in fond memory.
The list of their memories is endless; from all the trips the family took together across the country throughout the year, to their regular Friday girls’ night outs, and all the inside jokes and personal memories each family member has. But those can be saved for later, because the rest of their story is still unwritten.
“We still text everyday, and Facetime,” both Kathy and Mackenzie say. “And we are going to Germany in two years.” “Oh yeah,” Mackenzie remembers, “one of the letters Sarah wrote me over Christmas says ‘Open when you are on your way to Germany.’ So I will have to wait two years to open that.” Then she continues excitedly, “Our families are going to travel together in Germany, and Sarah and I are getting train passes. We are going to just pack a few clothes and go backpacking around Europe. We are still deciding on countries but definitely Spain, Italy, and France. Sarah is going to show me around all of her favorite places in Europe, and also definitely Hamburg because that is where she is planning on going to college.”
“I don’t think I would ever do something like this without Sarah,” reflects Mackenzie. “She’s broadened my perspective, my horizon, and pushed me to travel. I got to learn what it’s like in Europe and not just the general stuff but what it’s actually like, what it is like to be a teenager in Europe, and how it’s different.” Mackenzie now plans on taking French, studying abroad, and studying European government in college. Luckily for her, while she is at it, she now also has a personal tutor by her side, who also happens to be her best friend, travel buddy, and sister.