Talk about culture shock. Take a group of teenage girls from big cities in Spain like Madrid and set them up in homestays with conservative Mennonite families living on farms in rural southern Ontario. No television, no radio and must wear a dress to church every Sunday.
||Avon Maitland hosts with Spanish students
For Diane Hahn, Homestay Manager with the Avon Maitland District School Board, the goal was to find suitable families for a six-week summer homestay program without any ESL classes. While she was able to recruit a few families outside the Mennonite community, many parents work during the summer and were not able to devote time during the day to the Spanish students.
She turned to the one Mennonite family already on her roster and they helped spread the word in the tightly knit community in the area around Stratford, west of Toronto.
While some Amish shun all technology by getting around by horse and buggy, the school board recruited families who drive farm trucks and cars and use phones. The district also requires that every host family has internet service available, although some of the Mennonites restrict use to certain times of the day. In addition, the Spanish students had to make do without TV or radio for their entire stay.
"When we first placed the students, we thought: 'Oh, is this going to work?'" Hahn recalls about the program two years ago.
The parents in Spain were worried too. Many did not want their children placed in such conservative families. "They expected that hosts would be white liberal Canadian couples with two children and a dog. However, our area is becoming increasingly multicultural - and the Mennonites are just one example of this."
So how did it go? "The Mennonite families were very welcoming even when the teenage girls arrived wearing shorts and halter tops," Hahn says. "It didn't take long before all of the students warmed up to it."
The Spanish girls were kept so busy that they didn't have time to miss modern technology. The Mennonites engaged the students in church activities several days a week, in addition to Sunday services, allowing them to meet a wide group of people. The students went on hayrides, went for a dip in local swimming holes and picked fresh vegetables from the farm gardens. On Sundays, the students had to dress up for church - but even that was a cultural experience.
All of the homestays were successful - not a single student requested a move to another family.
The program lasted only one summer at Avon Maitland. It proved to be challenging to engage students all day without having them in class. As well, the board decided to change its focus to work with international students who are interested in coming to Canada for a semester or a full year of schooling plus homestay.
Hahn says the experience did present some lessons learned for the school district. "If we do it again, we would need to prepare both sides better. In our host profiles, we would include a lot more information for students/parents about what to expect. Many overseas parents are not even aware that the Mennonite lifestyle exists."
As with many homestays, it was a learning experience for all parties involved.