Sharon and Don Strasser have welcomed hundreds of foreign exchange students into their home from across the globe.
The Strasser’s hosted their first exchange student in 1981 — a boy from Japan — and are currently hosting their 36th and 37th student. But that’s the tip of the iceberg.
“We’ve had tons more than that,” said Sharon. “One year we didn’t host, we had 11 kids stay with us during that year during periods of time. I don’t have any idea how many altogether we’ve had come through our home but it’s been a lot.”
Their current students are 17-year-old Lassi Hiilinen, who is from Finland, and 18-year-old Daiki Ichihara from Japan. They are both students at Logansport High School.
Hiilinen has been at the Strasser’s home since the beginning of the school year but Ichihara arrived in the United States two weeks ago.
“I’ve enjoyed watching these two boys ... when Lassi first got here he was really quiet … and then we got [Daiki] and I mean it’s like they work together so well, it’s fun to watch the two of them together,” said Sharon.
Sharon said that Ichihara’s English has improved a lot in the two weeks he has been here.
They are both interested in sports and are in the math and science academic clubs.
Most of the exchange students that the Strasser’s have hosted have gone to Logansport High School, except for a few that started off with host families in the Lewis Cass school district. They wanted to let those students finish the school year where they began.
The Strasser’s first got into hosting exchange students when Don was approached by one of his coworkers whose brother had just gotten back from an exchange in Germany. The brother mentioned that they were trying to find host families.
She asked Don if he and Sharon would consider hosting since they did not have kids of their own.
They filled out an application and didn’t hear back for a while. One day out of the play the phone rang. They were asked to host a girl from Japan.
“The Japanese girl ended up being the Japanese boy that we have up there,” said Don, referring to the wall that displays all their past students. “This was on a Friday night and they said he would be here on Tuesday and wanted to know if we would still take him.”
They had the weekend to prepare.
“At first, I thought it was a lot like having a visitor,” Sharon said. “You try to get everything ready, everything had to be perfect I thought you know, which it doesn’t, they’re a part of your family for the year. You don’t want them to be a guest in your home — not even for one day. And so then he came and Don and I looked at each other and we thought, ‘What were we thinking? It was such a shock to us for a while. It turned out to be the best experience we’ve ever had. We fell in love with him, we did so much with him and he still calls me mom.”
The Strasser’s said they have kept in touch with most of their students throughout the years, especially on Facebook.
The Strasser’s went on a trip to Germany about three years ago and one of their former exchange students, who was 18 at the time, planned the entire trip for them. She contacted all of their former students and she wanted to throw them a big party.
“The girl’s mother gave her her car and her credit card and said, ‘Show them your country.’”
They visited all over in Germany and were able to meet up with 18 of their former exchange students.
The girl took them on a cruise along the Rhine River to see the castles. They also went to Switzerland and ate in the clouds on top of a mountain there.
They ended the tour at the girl’s house in Bremen, Germany. The girl had contacted and invited all of the Strasser’s former students to come and stay as long as they wanted to and then they had a big party.
About 10 of the Strasser’s former exchange students ended up at the house that night for the party.
“We had them flying in from London, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, just countries all over the place,” Don said. “They were either coming by flights, by trains, by all forms of transportation. They were all ending up there for at least a couple days and then we had this big party. We had them all lined up by the years that they were there and they talked about their year. So we got to meet up with 18 of them while we were there, which was pretty amazing. The one we hadn’t seen her in 25 years and some of them had just gone home, you know.”
The Strassers, Hiilinen and Ichihara recently went on a trip to Florida.
“Florida was cool, but also very hot. It was a nice place … I can’t stand heat that well,” said Hiilinen. “Finland is cold.”
Hiilinen was sporting his NASA shirt from the Kennedy Space Center and his Deathly Hollows necklace from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter themed area at Universal Studios. They also went to Clearwater Beach.
While in Florida, they met up with Julia, who is one of the Strasser’s former exchange students from Russia who immigrated to the United States.
The Strasser’s paid for Julia to come back to the United States on a work visa after she graduated. She came back twice and worked at Indiana Beach both times.
“Some of our friends had a big bonfire and one of their relatives was coming up from Florida,” Sharon said. “She met the cousin and ended up falling in love with him, getting married. When she was living in Russia, she said she made more money in the summer than her parents would make all year. They lived on $75 a month in Russia. She told me some of the things they had to do over there and it was not good. Now she’s living in a gated community in Florida beautiful home and a big pool and everything and they’ve got the best of everything down there. Now she was able to get her parents over here too so she’s got a wonderful life now.”
She was 1 of 2000 people who applied for this scholarship and she won the scholarship. “If she hadn’t won that scholarship, her life would have been totally different.”
They also visited a former exchange student who was from Sweden while on this trip.
The Strasser’s did not plan on hosting exchange students again this year but, like many years before, “There were still students who needed a home and we still have two empty beds.”
Meanwhile, the couple have had their share of heartache when it came to growing their own family. Sharon and Don eventually adopted a girl who had been in foster care and aged out of the system and had no place to go.
“So she came to live with us and we ended up adopting her when she was 22,” Sharon said. “And she had a baby and then the father of the baby killed her — strangled her when the baby was three-months-old. The baby is now 13 and we have visitation rights for him every other weekend.”
Justin D. Suits was sentenced to 20 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter in 2007 killing Marva Diana Rhea with his bare hands just before Christmas 2006 in Selma, just east of Munice. The couple’s son, Jackson, was in the next room of the Selma couple’s home when Rhea was killed. Suits was released from prison in 2012, five years to the day after his sentencing.
Hiilinen and Ichihara both met Jackson last weekend.
“He got to go to Japan himself,” said Sharon. “Since grandma is all about the program, he is really involved in international exchange students. When he was just a little tyke … I’ve got a big map on my wall in the hallway and I’ve got pins in there for each student that we’ve posted and he would walk up to that and he would say This is Jake from Australia, his is Marius from Germany … and he was maybe only five or six years old. It wasn’t just a world map, it was a face that he was looking at.”
Sharon said that at least four of her former exchange students are now American citizens — Julia, a boy from Sweden, a boy from Australia and a girl from Vietnam who is working on her PhD.
“You don’t know what impact you have on these kids lives,” said Sharon. “And that’s why I’m still doing it 40 years later.”
Sharon is a community development manager for Youth For Understanding, which is an intercultural exchange program that allows students from more than 60 countries to study abroad. Sharon is in charge of finding host families for the northern Indiana sector and, until recently, used to be in charge of the entire state.
According to their website, YFU supports more than 4,000 exchange students annually. YFU is one of the oldest programs there is for youth exchange and has been around for more than 60 years.