As an ISE host mom in Louisiana, Sarah Stanford noticed a slight problem.
“At the time there wasn’t a rep locally,” she said. “Whenever ISE had issues, they didn’t have someone nearby, or, in their mind and my mind, someone close enough. I was asked why didn’t I consider becoming a rep.”
So she did — first, in 2014, as the area representative in the Bayou region, then, as she began surpassing her placement goals, as the regional manager.
Stanford also works in local elementary schools as a substitute teacher, and was recently offered a position as a permanent aide — a job she turned down, due to her work with ISE.
“Working with ISE gives me the flexibility to where I can still help out part time at the schools. I’m pretty constant in the kindergarten hall, but I’m all throughout elementary, from Pre-K to fifth grade.”
Stanford first hosted Andrea, an 18-year-old student from Mexico.
“She was very social and very confident,” she said. “She was wonderful with my children. She was a cheerleader. She’s come back to visit — her whole family has come to visit.”
Ana, a 16-year-old from Brazil, was Stanford’s second student. She was, in Stanford’s words, “a typical teenager.”
“We kind of butted heads [at times]. But I just treated her like I would treat my own child if an issue arose. We are extremely close. We talk probably two to three times a week, if not more. When she makes a life decision, she calls her parents, and then she calls me. I truly thought we wouldn’t be as close, because we did have some issues.”
It was that tension, however, that created such a bond between the two. It caused Ana, now a college student, to respect Stanford as she would her mom — because, at the end of the day, that is what host moms are: parents.
“It’s crazy, because I have tons of messages from her,” Stanford said. “She will say, ‘I made this choice, and it’s because you taught me to be confident in myself, to not worry about being different.’”
Stanford currently is readying her home for her seventh student. It was after hosting Andrea and Ana, however, that she became a rep, and began working for ISE in the traditional sense. Area representatives for ISE are in charge of finding host families, then ensuring that those families have undergone background checks and are able to provide quality homes for students.
Throughout the year, Stanford and other reps meet with the students and families, to make sure that everything is going smoothly, and that both parties are happy and safe.
“What I also like to do is, every other month, go to the schools and meet with the student. In my opinion, if you meet with a kid in the home, they are going to be less likely to tell you if something is going on. School is a safe zone. They know they are safe there.”
The Louisiana Department of State allows ISE reps and managers to be 120 miles from a student. To Stanford, that is too far. With children of her own, family obligations might prevent her from travelling long distances, should the need arise. Should she place a student in a home that proves itself to be not easily reached by Stanford personally, she will give up that student to a rep on her team who lives close by.
Stanford also has to make sure that host families are hosting for the right reasons. Hosting is a selfless task — it’s about giving, not receiving. It’s also a job that requires the ability to set boundaries, create rules — and to stick by them.
“The number one mistake I see host families make is treating kids like a guest when they arrive,” she said. “That is the worst thing I think a family can do.”
Being treated like a biological son or daughter might come as a bit of a shock to students, who may be expecting a nearly year-long vacation, but in the long run, Stanford said, it works out for the best. It allows students to thrive and mature — and feel safe — with the knowledge that they are to behave themselves as they would at home in their native country, with expectations and obligations and familial duties.
“As a host mom, I tell [my students] that I am going to treat them just the way I treat my kids. They aren’t a guest. If they leave a shirt on the floor, I’m going to tell them to pick it up. If I treat them like a guest for the first three months, and then October rolls around and that shirt is still being thrown on the floor, I’m going to start holding a grudge. And so are they. Treat students like a part of your family. And communicate. They’re teenagers; they cannot read your mind, and you cannot read theirs.”
But that’s not to say being a host mom doesn’t have its benefits, its joys. Overwhelmingly, the experience is a positive one for all involved.
“For me personally, I know that as much as I would love to take my children all over the world, chances are they’re not going to go everywhere. This was a chance for them to experience world travel without me taking them [on international trips.] These girls who came to my home spoke different languages, had completely different backgrounds. My kids loved them.”
To her kids — a son and two daughters, aged ten, eight, and five — this diversity has become the norm. They have, through the ISE program, essentially received new siblings, just as Stanford has received new children. The experience had opened their minds, cultured them, allowing them to grow into a respect for the world around them, to understand not only peoples’ differences, but, more importantly, their similarities.
That, Stanford said, is a priceless gift, and is something that cannot easily be found.