Foreign exchange parents
February 15. 2013 12:32PM
WILKES-BARRE – Take a look at 32-year-old Pamela Jones and her husband, Scott, 35, and it’s hard to imagine the couple has parented more than a dozen children over the past decade, with two more on the way.
During a reunion two years ago, Scott and Pam Jones of Wilkes-Barre posed with former foreign exchange students they had hosted through the years.
Don Carey/The Times Leader
Photo after photo of smiling teenagers line the walls of their Poplar Street home, depicting moments that have touched their lives.
The Joneses, of course, are too young to be the biological parents of the teens. Their foray into parenthood has come via their decade-long involvement as host parents for foreign exchange students.
Since 2000 the couple has hosted 13 students from around the globe, including Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic and Italy. Next month, they will welcome another two students to their home – a 14-year-old from Ecuador and a 15-year-old from Germany.
“It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Pamela Jones said. “You get to learn about a new culture on a whole different level.”
The couple is among thousands of families in the United States who open their homes to foreign students each year. For the vast majority of families and students the experience is positive.
But the Joneses say they fear that publicity surrounding the recent arrest of Edna Burgette, an exchange coordinator in Scranton who is accused of placing youths in homes with deplorable conditions, has cast a shadow over the entire exchange student industry.
Burgette, who worked for the Aspect Foundation, was charged Wednesday with five counts of endangering the welfare of children. Lackawanna County prosecutors say she placed children in homes that were littered with animal waste, lacked sufficient food and housed persons with criminal records.
The Joneses say the allegations against Burgette make them “sick.” But they’re also distressed that the public is being exposed only to negative information about exchange programs. They want people to know what a positive experience hosting a student can be.
“It’s sad because we know how much we’ve enjoyed having the students here,” Scott Jones said. “In all the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had a negative experience.”
Part of the problem is that people are under the misconception that there is only one program placing students, he said. In reality there are currently 94 nonprofit groups licensed to bring foreign exchange students into America, according to the U.S. State Department, which regulates the programs.
The Joneses are allied with the Educational Resource Development Trust, a nonprofit educational foundation based in California that’s been in existence since 1974.
Pamela said ERDT is extremely well run. The organization conducts background checks on all host families, including a home visit, and provides extensive other assistance to host families and students. All host families with ERDT are volunteers.
The Joneses got involved with the program in 2000 after Pamela, then 23, saw a newspaper ad seeking host families. She had gotten to know a foreign exchange student while in Meyers High School, and thought hosting would be an interesting experience.
Scott admits he wasn’t too keen on the idea at first.
“She said, ‘I want to host a foreign exchange student.’ I said, ‘No way. I’m 26. I don’t want a teenager around,’ ” Scott said. “She said, ‘Well, the lady is coming to interview us tomorrow.’ ”
One month later, 16-year-old Jan of Germany arrived.
“We didn’t know what to expect. He was great,” Scott said.
And so began the “Jones International Family” – a moniker the couple gave themselves a few years ago.
Jan was followed by Maria from Germany. Then came Nita from Bangkok, Katalin from Romania, Arnaud from Belgium, Verena from Germany, Julia from the Czech Republic, Stefano from Italy, Alex from Germany, Simeon from Berlin, Dominik from the Czech Republic, Maren from Norway and Eva from the Netherlands.
Each of the students stayed for approximately a year. But the bond created with the Joneses has lasted far longer.
The couple, married 11 years, do not have any biological children. The students they have hosted have truly become part of their family, as evidenced by the avalanche of phone calls Pamela received on her birthday a few weeks ago.
“She spent six hours on the phone because they all kept calling,” Scott said with a laugh.
The students have also developed a bond among themselves based on their experiences with the Joneses. Although they were with the couple during different times, several have taken the initiative to meet their “siblings” while visiting the other’s native country, Pamela said.
“I had one from Germany go to Thailand to visit another. They had never met face-to-face. They had only heard stories and saw pictures,” she said.
Two years ago, six of the students returned for a reunion in celebration of Pamela’s 30th birthday. The couple is planning another reunion next year.
The experience hasn’t just been positive for the students and the Joneses. All but one of the students attended Meyers High School, where, the couple acknowledges, they’ve become sort of exchange student legends.
“Some of the students from Meyers will see me in the summer and say, ‘Are you getting another exchange student?’ ” Scott said. “Some even contact the kids who are coming in advance.”
Scott works as a supervisor at a local plastics manufacturing plant, while Pamela is a part-time clerk in a chiropractor’s office.
The couple say they can’t wait to meet their newest students, who arrive next month. They’ve already got a gift ready for them – one of the official “Jones International Family” T-shirts they started printing up a few years ago.
The blue shirt with white lettering sports the family logo on front. On the back is the student’s first name along with their “number” – depicting their order in the line of students who have stayed with the family. The new arrivals will be numbers 14 and 15.
For anyone considering becoming a host family, Pamela has this message:
“If they’re afraid to host a student, it’s a big mistake. They’re missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime,” Pamela said. “You create this bond and friendship that, if you put the work into it, will last forever.”
Terrie Morgan-Besecker, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 570-829-7179.