Theresa Petersen, her husband Steve and the rest of their family, have been working with non-profit organization CCI Greenheart and foreign exchange students for 23 years. Currently there are 9 Greenheart students living in Clatsop County, but the Petersen’s have organized homes with local families for a total of 12 students.

From the moment we first spoke, I could hear in Theresa’s voice how enthusiastic she is about what she does and her excitement to meet was obvious.

I arrive at the Petersen’s guesthouse before the rest of the party. All the students the Theresa works with take part in high school sports. Every day the students attend practice in various sports and today was no exception. I try to organize my thoughts before they arrive but I still was not prepared for the energy and excitement from this group of students. It came as no surprise to see that the large SUV that pulled into the driveway of the house was full. Before I was introduced to each individual one, while walking into the front door, I hear one of them ask if there are any snacks in the house. I smile to myself and think that request comes as no surprise from a group of teenagers, especially after sports practice.

Theresa’s excitement that I heard over the phone is still present. The enthusiasm is obvious and contagious. Greenheart organizes foreign exchange students from 60 countries and places them with families who want to host. Earlier in the day Theresa had been at Ilwaco High school, across the river in Washington, hoping to find more families willing to host students. I ask about a minimum income requirement for families willing to host. “They don’t need a huge house, they just need to be willing to open up their home to one of the students,” Theresa explains. “And we need more families.”

All students through Greenheart bring their own money and are required to be active members of the community, including performing volunteer work. This gives the students the opportunity to make an impact and be local positive representatives for their countries. During the interview, I learned that one student has done approximately 30 hours of community service, while another has done a total of 20 hours.

Theresea Petersen Exchange Students visiting the Peter Iredale
Theresa Petersen has organized homes with local families for up to 12 students currently. The group does community service together along with group trips and also travel. Recently they visited the Peter Iredale in Seaside. Photo credit: Cristine Swett

Then I got to meet the students. Each has a slightly different view on America after their stay. Some of the students admit surprise over the relaxed attitude towards academics in the local school system, but enjoy the enthusiasm and enjoyment in sports and extracurricular activities. Most of the students say there is a big difference in culture compared to their homelands, except John from Brazil and Emilie from Italy did not feel there was a big difference compared to home.

Mo-Cha Liao, who goes by Hank, is from Taiwan and is 17-years-old. Hank admitted to me that he liked the difference in weather and was enjoying the Pacific Northwest compared to the humid weather of Taiwan.

Yae-In from South Korea is 16-years-old. Yae-In was shy and said she missed her family, friends and the food from South Korea.

Myriam is 18-years-old and from France. She finds life here challenging and said it felt like she was living more like an adult.

Jay who is from South Korea, felt similar to Myriam, admitting that his experience in the U.S. has made him become stronger by learning how to make his own decisions and live by himself.

Zosia, 16-years-old and from Poland, has been enjoying the small community and that almost everyone locally knows each other.

Matteo from Italy, makes it very clear that he is 17-years-old, but almost 18-years-old. He has enjoyed travelling with his host family.

Joao, who goes by John, is 17-years-old and from Brazil. He has also enjoyed the travelling.

Theresea Petersen Exchange Students and 7 students
The students gather for a group picture in Theresa’s guest house. From right: Yae-In, John, Zosia, Hank, Matteo, Myriam, Emilie, and Theresa Petersen. Photo credit: Cristine Swett

Emilie is from Italy and is 17-years-old. She is enjoying the small community and how everyone knows each other.

Poon is from Taiwan. He explained how an exchange student really has to be willing to open up, even if they are naturally shy, they learn to be bold and start a conversation. “There were a lot of exchange students who didn’t know English very well and some that are shy so we won’t be starting a lot of conversations,” Poon explains. “This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to talk, but we just don’t feel like we are ready.”

Each student had his or her own story to tell and I could probably spend the whole night listening to each individual one.

Anyone interested in learning more about the local exchange student program, please call 503-440-1680 or fill out an inquiry form on the CCI Greenheart website.

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