By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 31, 2011
Seventeen-year-old Marine Part has found a second home several thousand miles from her family in eastern France.
Coming to Georgia as an exchange student for a year, she has learned about American education, but even more so about American family life.
Stephanie and Joseph Walski, parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Carrollton, have taken her into their home as one of their own children. This isn’t the first time they have served as a host family, a pattern that began because of their daughter.
“It’s her fault,” joked Joseph Walski as he pointed at one of his three children, Allison. When Allison wanted to travel to Spain through an exchange program a few years ago, the Walskis thought they should serve as a host family first to learn a little about what the experience is like.
“Our first exchange student was a girl from Germany,” said Stephanie. “It really was a lot of fun. So the next year, when Alison went away, we thought, ‘Hey, we should do this again.’”
Inviting a stranger from abroad to live with the family has become an annual tradition. Over the past few years, they have hosted students from Germany, Brazil and now France.
The Walskis were matched with Marine through the ASSE International Student Exchange Program. According to the organization, a student must be exceptional academically and personally before being considered for the program. A series of interviews are required and the host family is involved with the process. Host families provide meals and a room. Students cover their own travel expenses and insurance.
Stephanie said it is important to make the student feel as much a part of the family as possible, whether that is by going out together or letting the student share in helping out around the house.
Marine, who arrived last August, said she felt anxious then because she did not know exactly what to expect. Arriving at the airport and realizing you have left your country and your family behind to live with strangers can be a sobering reality.
“I was very nervous,” Marine said in her charming French accent. She describes herself as shy so it was an especially different experience to join a big family.
It was particularly difficult during the Christmas holidays because she missed being in France, but the Walskis have made her feel comfortable and welcome in their home. It feels like her home now, she said.
There are some big differences between her experience in France and in the United States, Marine said. She cannot choose her school schedule here as she did at home, the drinking age is much lower in France and there is no curfew for kids her age, she said. But it has been a wonderful experience for her, she said. In addition to seeing many Atlanta highlights, the family has traveled together to New York, Florida, Virginia, Canada and Japan.
“It has been a dream to come here,” said Marine with a smile.
The Walskis have included Marine, who comes from a Catholic family, in their church activities. Attending Mass every week has been a staple of her time with the family. Stephanie said it has been a great opportunity to show a young person how they live their faith.
Marine has also been involved with activities as a member of the junior class in Oak Mountain Academy. She has tried basketball and cheerleading and was excited to find some new interests she never knew she had.
“It is cool to discover these new things,” she said, adding that learning about a new culture in America has been a memorable experience as well.
This month the Walskis are traveling with Marine to France to visit her family a few months before she will return home for good. It will be the first time the two families have met.
This is a bittersweet year for the Walskis as their youngest child, Aaron, will be graduating from Oak Mountain Academy. Since next year they will not have any young children living in their house, this will be their last year serving as a host family.
“It is both a happy and sad time,” said Stephanie.
She said they are blessed to have had Marine as a part of their lives this year and it is a great finale to their hosting tradition.
“It is giving of yourself and living your faith as an example for a young person,” Stephanie said about serving as a host family. “And that’s what we try to do for our own children as well.”