We thought our family had stopped growing at two kids. It seemed like the financially responsible thing to do, and my ever practical partner pointed out that we’d need a bigger car if we had any more. Two seemed like plenty in those early years, and if you had told me that one day I could say I had parented ten kids, and be willing to take on more in the future, I would have laughed. No way. Not ever.

Our family grew, through necessity. For many families, the ability for both partners to work full time can be sideswiped by circumstances. I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder and had to quit my day job. But I was still able to manage the day to day running of our household. We had to supplement my loss of income, somehow, so we started to look around at options. Work that can be done around ‘bad days’ of illness is hard to come by. I knew of some families who chose to have home stay students boarding with them to supplement their lifestyle. My own extended family have hosted students in their homes for years, so we asked them about it. They were candid in their responses.

“Start as you mean to go on”, “…be clear about expectations”, and “…don’t compromise on communication. We thought carefully about it. And we made the call. We live in a popular school zone, so the schools around here are magnets for local and international students. We thought hosting girls would suit us better, so we called the local girls’ high school. The coordinator was around in a flash. Apparently, home stays within walking distance of school are highly sought after by the International Community. It’s not compulsory to live so close, just a bonus. In general, if your home is on public transport routes, you might fit the criteria, too.

Discussions were had. She assessed our suitability as a host family, ran the relevant security checks and outlined the things we would need to provide. We already cook family meals every night; increasing the quantity of those would be simple. We already cater for breakfasts and school lunches, so that would be simple too. We already do copious loads of washing, what is a few more! But what about the other requirements?

Each student would need their own bedroom. Thankfully, our sprawling seventies block house was built for space. She’s an unattractive house, but immensely practical. We had two spare rooms begging for mini makeovers. We’d need a desk with a lamp for each girl, bed linen, bedroom furniture and wardrobe facilities. We’d need an open mind about cultural difference and the ability to communicate with people who spoke English as a second language. We’d need to be prepared to compromise our privacy as a family so we could grow into a new kind of family. A hybrid, multicultural, broad definition of “family”. And most importantly of all, we’d need to begin parenting teenagers before our time had come. It was frankly, a little daunting.

host student

Our very first student, Kay, was 13 when she arrived. She was endlessly curious, funny and disarmingly affectionate. We were all captured by her vibrant enthusiasm for life, K-pop, selfies and Asian fashion. She opened her arms to my nearly two year old son and barely let him out of them for the two and a half years she was with us. Joining her within months was the much older and more sophisticated Dee from Thailand. It was the start of a winning formula. Since then, we’ve hosted Tanya, Fifi and Coco. Our family has grown to include girls from Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Chile and China. This year, XiXi has joined us. With two home stay students, we’re a family of six. Our membership fluctuates in and out of the revolving door, as some leave and some arrive. All of ‘our girls’ will always be able to call our house their home. They are the big sisters my children always wanted, the extended family we love to call our own.

But we don’t just benefit from their company. We have had a crash course in parenting teenagers, an opportunity to discover where our boundaries lie and just how important clear communication can be. We have learned from our mistakes and discovered our weaknesses and strengths as a family. We have better routines and smarter procedures. We know how to cater for many and stretch our wings over a wider nest. Our own children have become world citizens, with a far greater appreciation for the things that make all of us the same. Unlike many of their peers, they don’t focus on the things about people from other cultures that are different; but on the ways we can connect. I really love this aspect of growing into a home stay family. The precious opportunity it is to teach our children about human values and the importance of connection.

The financial benefits of hosting students keeps our housekeeping budget afloat in the absence of paid employment for me. We are paid $580 per week for two students. The first student is tax exempt, thanks to our government’s supportive stance on generating the international student dollar. Small wonder our small country is keen to host overseas students. On a macro level, their school fees bolster public school funding, their spending money stimulates the economy.   In New Zealand at the most recent count, some 15,943* students from overseas attended New Zealand schools. Most of these are high school students homed in families like mine and maybe, yours one day?

If you are interested in becoming a home stay family, contact your local high school and ask if they have an International Student home stay program. I am certain they will be eager to hear from you.

Last year my nine year old daughter’s class were asked at school to write a speech about something close to home. This is what she said about having home stay students:
“Having guests who stay for a year, or three, is actually much better than you’d think. I really love my home stay sisters, they are kinder than real sisters and they help us with minecraft, play games with us and come on bike rides to the park. Plus, I have learnt lots from them about where they’re from. Maybe one day, I will go and visit their families”.

We’re not a traditional kiwi family. We’re a growing family. I wonder if your family could grow this way, too?

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Rachel Cox is an Auckland wife and mother. She has two of her own children ...and two on loan from other mothers. She is a writer and blogger, an ex-teacher and a big believer that information is power. Her favourite topics to write about are all aspects of life with Pandysautonomia, parenting issues, chronic and invisible illness and disability, accessibility and the wonder of life in general. She blogs at www.rachelfaithcox.com

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