Throughout the year, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs hosts a number of international groups from countries around the world.
As part of the program, CCWA relies on local volunteers to open up their homes and host international guests for an evening for dinner or for a short overnight stay so they can experience a traditional American home.
The local volunteers have a lot to gain from the short visits, says Katie Ferman, senior program officer for international visitor programs at Cleveland Council of World Affairs.
“Just the act of sitting down at the dinner table, sharing a meal and conversation with someone from another culture or country or ethnicity can open up your world view tremendously,” she says.
These experiences give international guests a chance to learn about family culture in the United States — and they don’t have to be elaborate. Guests don’t mind tagging along to the grocery store or a sporting event, or just watching American movies and dining in at home, says Marissa Seibert, who has hosted for the past three years.
“There’s really no standard experience that you need to provide for your guests when they come,” Seibert says. “For us, we enjoy doing touristy things in our own town, going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the zoo and things like that.”
While the main goal is to provide international visitors with the chance to learn about American culture, there’s also many benefits for the local host families.
“My husband and I really like traveling and it’s hard to travel when you have young children,” Siebert says. “We have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old and it’s not as easy to travel as it was before we had children. In hosting, we found an opportunity to ‘travel’ but not have to leave your home. You get to learn about culture and language and customs without leaving, so I think that was an amazing benefit of hosting.”
Scott and Cheree Aspelin, of Shaker Heights, have done both overnight hosting as well as several dinner parties over the last few years. In doing so, they’ve managed to expose their family to parts of the world they’d never have been able to visit in person.
“We’ve probably done eight or nine a year and we’ve had 35 countries represented here,” Scott Aspelin says. “We can only travel so much in a year, so hosting is a really cool opportunity to bring the world to us.”
Connecting with people from other countries and other cultures brings many different topics to the dinner table, but host families say most of the time they realize they’re not as different from their visitors as they think.
“When we sit around the table together and we eat a meal together, we realize we have so much in common,” Cheree Aspelin says. “Everybody wants their family to be healthy and happy and wants an education and so it’s just fun to discover that every time people come.”
Hosting isn’t just for adults; kids at home also can get into the fun of entertaining international guests, Cheree Aspelin says.
“Our son is a sophomore in high school, and he has a huge map of the world on one of his bedroom walls, and one of the things that he does when we have an international visitor is he gives them a tour of our house,” she says. “There’s always a stop around the map in his room. If they’re Spanish speakers, he practices his Spanish and gives his little tour in Spanish.”
Even if you don’t speak the same language, children are especially curious and find ways to engage international visitors, Siebert says.
“Young kids just want to play and be silly and it doesn’t really matter what language is being spoken,” Siebert says. “Bobby, my 4-year-old, doesn’t speak Russian and Alesya doesn’t speak English, yet they could play and goof around, play with different toys around the house or point at books and tell each other what the words were in each other’s languages.”
Thanks to social media, many host families are able to keep in touch with their international guests and some even get the chance to go and visit them in their native country.
The Aspelins’ son, for example, recently visited Taiwan with a group from CCWA and got to meet up with Taiwanese friends he had made when they previously visited his home in the U.S.
Siebert says she hopes hosting will help her two young sons develop a lifelong curiosity for other cultures.
“They’re a little young to understand it now, but I think it’s planting the seed in their minds that opening your door to people who are different than you is important and fulfilling,” she says.
“I hope it sparks their curiosity about travel and language learning and also exposes them to service to others.”
For more information about becoming a host family, visit ccwa.org.