Michelle Matthews, al.com
Alessia Bardanzellu, 17, an exchange student from Rome, Italy, eats lunch with her friends at Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala., on on March 14, 2016.
On one of her first days as a freshman at Murphy High School in Mobile, Marylyn Gafford – feeling a little lost and overwhelmed, herself – noticed a girl who didn't seem to know anyone. Soon, they struck up a conversation and Marylyn learned that the girl, Gabriela Ravanello, was an exchange student from Brazil who was having a bad experience with her host family.
Marylyn knew just what to do. She went home and asked her parents if 15-year-old Gabi could come live with them. "I thought they'd never say yes," she said.
But, to her surprise, her parents, Leslie and John Gafford, did say yes – and Gabriela spent the rest of the semester living with their family, which includes Marylyn, now 18; Michael, 16; and Matthew, 13, in their comfortable, rambling split-level home in a neighborhood off Burma Road in west Mobile.
"We had an extra room upstairs that was full of junk," Leslie said. "We cleared it out and let her pick her paint color and painted it for her."
They knew they'd done the right thing when Leslie received an email from Gabriela's parents in Brazil: "Thank you for letting us see our daughter smile again."
"Gabriela was a live wire, so funny," said John. Once, the family took her camping with them at Big Lagoon State Park. It was her first camping experience, and she ate S'mores for the first time. "This day has been delicious!" she pronounced. When they corrected her and told her "delicious" might not be the right word, she corrected them and said "delicious" was exactly what she meant.
Coming to Gabriela's rescue "opened up a whole realm of opportunities we didn't even envision," said Marylyn.
Since then, over the past four years, they've hosted several more students from all over the world, and Leslie has become an international exchange coordinator for the Education First High School Exchange Year (EF HSEY) program, acting as matchmaker between foreign students and local host families. In the larger scheme of things, her job is "public diplomacy that the U.S. Department of State sanctions," she said. "It's engineered to create positive thoughts."
'This is my home'
The family's current exchange students, Paloma Fuentes Cegarra from Spain and Alessia Bardanzellu from Italy, have been with the Gaffords since August and don't like to think about leaving in just two months. They share a cheery bedroom with twin beds and French doors opening onto a balcony. Decorative shelves hold mementoes the girls have collected during their time in Mobile, where they attend Davidson High School and play soccer.
Outside, in a big oak tree in the Gaffords' front yard, flags from Italy and Spain are proudly displayed. The tree has held flags from seven countries so far.
"This is my home, definitely," said Paloma.
"It's hard to remember this is not our real life, that we will go back," said Alessia. "It makes me so sad. We don't want to talk about it."
Both of the 17-year-olds say they love the fact that teenagers here can drive at 16. (They have to wait until they're 18 in Europe, they said.) So when a friend says, "Let's go to the beach," or "Let's go get ice cream," they jump right in the car.
And the Gaffords give them plenty of freedom. "My parents understand that they need to have friends and do things with them," said Marylyn. "No teenager wants to constantly be stuck in the house."
Leslie describes herself as a "the-more-the-merrier-type person." She inherited her love of traveling and throwing parties from her mother, she said. Having an extra member of the family or two, to her, feels natural and adds to the fun. They go on fishing trips and boat rides, have crawfish boils and cookouts, take quick trips to New Orleans and visit Gatlinburg, Tenn.
And it's a relationship that lasts far beyond a school year. "You're their mom, their dad, everything they have over here," she said. "They depend on their U.S. family."
'These are great kids'
David Holland, a former math teacher who works as the federal programs coordinator at Davidson High School – where he also coaches soccer and swimming – creates the class schedules for the school's exchange students. He works with four different exchange programs all competing for a limited number of spots in Mobile high schools – with openings for only seven students per school.
"One of the things that makes this such a cool place to go to school is you never know where someone is from or what their life experience is until you ask them," he said. "We have kids from five continents on the soccer team. The only one missing is Australia. They all blend together and function together."
The biggest challenge, he said, is "placing them appropriately for their English skills." Oftentimes, students have learned to speak British English, and Southern accents and colloquialisms further complicate the language barrier, he said. "There's no Chinese translation for 'That dog don't hunt' or 'fixin'."
Holland feels that the mix of foreign students among the population at Davidson benefits everyone, especially when it comes to their contributions to their classes. "These are great kids," he said. "We have kids from Berlin whose parents can tell where they were when the wall fell, Middle Eastern students who can talk about bombs falling, Asian students with such a different math background that's much more holistic than linear."
Popular classes for foreign students include a world geography elective that's discussion-based, and a computer science class with its own universal language.
Last year, one of the most popular exchange students yet attended Davidson, Holland said. He was from a small town outside Florence, Italy, and he was a music student who stayed with a music professor at the University of South Alabama. "He took five AP exams in English and made 5s on four of them," he said. "Every student here would bring him back if they could."
Sometimes, students prove what a small world it is. A few years ago, he said, Davidson had a Brazilian student who was Jewish and stayed with Rabbi Steven Silberman's family in Mobile. As it turns out, the student's father, a pediatrician, works with another doctor who came to Mobile 20 years ago and stayed with another member of the Ahavas Chesed Synagogue.
Another local family hosts a Spanish student every year, Holland said. "Their oldest son had a destination wedding in Majorca, Spain. Long, lasting friendships for families are what makes it such a great experience."
Best friends forever
The Gaffords stay in touch with all of their past exchange students, and Marylyn is planning the trip of a lifetime this summer, before she starts college at the University of South Alabama. She's going to Europe to stay with her "sisters" in Sweden, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
In Sweden, she'll reunite with Johanna Gustavsson, who stayed with the Gaffords during Marylyn's junior year. "She's my best friend ever," said Marylyn. "We Skype all the time and cry because we miss each other. I'm going to start and end my vacation with her."
Johanna presented a challenge to the Gaffords during her stay because she was allergic to nuts, eggs and shellfish. "I learned so much about labels," said Leslie, who, like any good mom, helped keep Johanna safe from the foods that could make her sick. "These kids are so brave."
Marylyn said that the main reason teenagers participate in the program is "they want to learn better English. It's the universal language, so if you can speak English you can speak to anyone. And you can only be fluent in a language if you immerse yourself in it."
While they're with the host family, students immerse themselves completely in American culture, participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as celebrating holidays and even birthdays with their host families.
The Gaffords' kitchen table, which Leslie found at a yard sale, seats 10 to 12 people. Both of her current exchange students, Paloma and Alessia, celebrated their 17th birthdays in Mobile, complete with birthday balloons and cake.
Exchange students have helped the family through some tough times, too, including the deaths of Leslie's mother, father and brother, and John's heart attack.
Their first exchange student, Gabriela, visited John in the hospital's intensive care unit to say goodbye before returning to Brazil.
"They were the bright spots," Leslie said of the foreign students' presence during good times and bad. They were a constant reminder, she said, that "we can't just fold up and quit."
Paloma's family came to visit her in Mobile during Mardi Gras, and they plan to host Marylyn in Spain this summer.
"You get a family member for life" when hosting exchange students, said John. "It's just a universally good thing. There's someone for everyone."
Leslie's sister and her husband, Sydney and Bill Whiting, who are "empty-nesters," hosted a student from Germany and "just fell in love," she said. The student is coming back in May for a visit.
And then there's the Gaffords, who, with three children of their own and two full-time jobs – she's a clinical operations supervisor and he's an aerospace engineer – in addition to their responsibilities with EF HSEY, are constantly going in different directions. "If I can do it, anyone can do it," said Leslie. "We stay busy. We're out of control sometimes, we forget things – but we're real. We're a real, live American family."
For more information about EF HSEY, visit www.efexchangeyear.org, or contact Leslie Gafford at firstname.lastname@example.org.