Adopt-a-Student program offers unique opportunities

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Saint Paul Lutheran High School students Thilde, Ammi, Angel and Dobrivoj are among multiple international students who have “adoptive” families in the area.
Rocco Scarcello/The Concordian

An ecosystem all within itself, Saint Paul Lutheran High School offers many ways for interested community members to get involved. Through the Servants of the Saints (S.O.S) program comes the Adopt-a-Student program, one of the most all-encompassing routes volunteers can take to help students from international backgrounds adjust to a new culture.

Students come from all walks of life before landing at SPLHS. Fifty-nine students from 14 countries outside of the U.S. and roughly a dozen states flocked to SPLHS this year, according to Pastor Bart Mueller. Ammi (pronounced ah-ME), a senior from Ethiopia in his fourth year at the school, had a very different educational experience than the one he gets at SPLHS — starting with the morning procedure.

“My dad used to wake us up, and we had to dress up and get on a bus that would take us 40 minutes to school,” Ammi said. “But now it’s just get up and get some clothes on, and pretty much just walk to class. I think it’s great.”

Like Ammi, the schooling is quite unique for other foreign-born Saints, such as Dobrivoj (dahb-rih-VOY). In his second year at SPLHS, the Serbian-bred senior is pleased with the more personalized schooling he has been exposed to in the United States.

“We didn’t just have seven subjects (like students in the United States typically have). We had 14, and every single day it’s different,” Dobrivoj said. “I like the school more here because it’s so much easier…. In Serbia we would have three or four tests in one day, and it’s not flexible. It’s really hard sometimes.”

While SPLHS offers a ton of ways to make students feel at home while they’re thousands of miles from their families, it would be an impossible task for the administration to fully prevent homesickness from happening. Angel — a sophomore from Taiwan who had multiple siblings come to SPLHS before her — attended school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily before spending a few hours in tutoring, going home and doing hours of homework. Her school back home didn’t offer any athletics, clubs, or, really, any fun incentives for students.

Angel enjoys this luxury, in addition to the luxury of not studying for over 12 hours a day. Despite this, she finds herself missing something no high school can offer, and anybody who has moved out of their childhood home can feel her pain.

“I miss my kitchen,” Angel said, with a laugh. “I like to cook my own food, and I miss Taiwanese food so much — and also my family,” she continued, giggling. “Food and my family.”

“There’s a kitchen in Blitz Hall,” Thilde, a junior from Norway in her first year in the United States and SPLHS, pointed out.

“I don’t like that kitchen,” Angel responded, politely but with a definitive tone. “It’s just a kitchen.”

All four international students agreed that the main things they missed from home were the three F’s: family, friends, and food..

Sports have helped all of them adjust, as well. Angel and Thilda are both cheerleaders, Ammi is a talented soccer player, and Dobrivoj — dubbed “Dobi” by his teammates — is a bigtime contributor on both the football field and the basketball court.

“You need to make your day busy so you don’t think about your home,” Dobi said.

“And, also, your teammates are like your second family here, and at Saint Paul, the people here are like your family, because they make you feel at home. They do everything to make sure you feel comfortable here.”

The rest of the students asserted similar feelings, making it clear there’s a proclivity for great people in the Saint Paul, S.O.S., and Adopt-a-Student communities.

“I remember this year at camp, the first two weeks, we didn’t have food in the dining hall,” Ammi said, “so my adoptive mom (Mrs. Rhonda Beerman) made brunch and dinner, and we would walk there every day and she would make us brunch and dinner.”

“It was a big deal. We didn’t have to walk to a restaurant and spend money there… She was a lot of help… She was our adoptive mom.”

“They were super nice, and it wasn’t just me (and little brother and fellow Ethiopian, Nathan),” Ammi continued, regarding Rhonda and her husband, Jim. “They always invited people in the dorms who didn’t have a place to eat, so they’d be like “If there’s anybody, just call them over’.”

Ammi had a plethora of positive things to say about his relationship with the Beermans, who were his adoptive family last year, as well.

“They adopt everybody,” Pastor Mueller — who is also a very welcoming host to international students — said, accompanied by a chuckle.

One part that stuck out was the trust they put in Ammi and fellow students.

“She wasn’t even there all the time — it’s not like she was just waiting for us,” Ammi explained. “She would just make some food and text us like, ‘There’s food over there, go eat and do whatever.”

Naturally, the Beermans aren’t just Ammi’s adoptive parents, but among other students, Ammi’s little brother, freshman and fellow Ethiopian Nathan, is a member of the Beermans’ adoptive family.

One of Ammi’s teammates on the soccer team is his adoptive brother, junior Trey Beerman.

Dobi is also hosted by the family of one of his teammates, the Kunkel family and his adoptive brother, fellow senior football player Josiah Kunkel.

“I came this year a little bit earlier before school started for football camp,” Dobi said. “They had to do everything for me. They understand me if I’m a little bit homesick or something… They make me feel comfortable and at home.”

“I feel like, ‘You’re home, you don’t miss (Serbia),’” Dobi — who didn’t have a host family last year but stayed with Pastor Mehl over Thanksgiving break, and then went to Atlanta with his Serbian friends over Christmas break — explained. “They have fun with me, and spend a lot of time with me and try to talk to me about Serbia and everything. They just want to make sure I feel at home… They trust me, and… I don’t know, it’s really hard to explain that... They are like a second family to me.”

Thilde’s experience with her host family, the Frerkings, is different than the others in the group, yet is still rewarding.

“I mostly meet up with them over the weekend since they live in Warrensburg,” Thilde said. “I can’t really walk over to them, but they pick me up or come here to meet me and we do something fun.”

Making it even more fun for Thilde, the family also picks up an adoptive sister and another international student adopted into the family, also from Norway.

“(The Frerkings) are really kind and do my laundry, which is really fun because it smells really nice and feels really soft,” Thilde said with a laugh. “I can’t do it right… it feels like my mom is doing my laundry.”

Although they can’t give Angel her kitchen, her host family the Haase’s, provide her the next best thing.

“They said I can just walk over to their house and eat or something because I don’t really like the (dining hall food),” Angel said, “They are super kind… We have so much fun. I go to their house for movies and parties, and also they baked me cookies on my birthday… They just give me company, and that is super sweet.”

Not only do the Haase’s let Angel eat whatever she’s in the mood for, but she also has access to the cookbooks.

“My host mom is so nice, and she makes me everything I like to eat… I had tacos and pizza on my birthday, and she baked me my favorite cookie,” Angel said. “That made me feel like I really had a family here.”

Aside from the lifelong relationships made, host parents can learn a lot about life abroad from their adoptive students.

Mrs. Beerman knows this better than practically anyone, as she has been adopting students — formally and informally — for almost three decades.

“Back in about 1990 was when the first (large group of) international students that came to Saint Paul,” Mrs. Beerman said, “and our oldest son became good friends with one of the students from Japan.”

“He spent a lot of time at our house. Obviously he was a long way from home and had a strong family connection, and he was missing that. So he just spent weekends with us and went to church with us, and whatever our family activity was, he just went with us.”

Mrs. Beerman continued: “After he graduated, in 1990, there was another international student — he was from Hong Kong — and we began to realize how much they appreciated being in American homes and being an American family. So as much as it served them to be comforted and included, they were also learning a lot about American culture and American families.”

Mrs. Beerman and her family certainly don’t feel that the Adopt-a-Student program is a one-way investment of sorts, as they learn a ton about life outside of rural America.

“When you grow up in a small town in the Midwest, sometimes you don’t always have a broader aspect of the world, and we began to see early on that our children were learning about the world as a whole because the were befriending and were spending their school days with lots of students of other, different cultures,” she explained. “They were teaching us as much about their world as we were teaching them about the culture that we live in.”

Even further, Mrs. Beerman couldn’t imagine life without the Adopt-a-Student program.

“When our children all graduated from SPLHS, they not only had lifelong friends in most states in the United States, they have lifelong friends in countries around the world,” she said. “That is such a unique and priceless benefit that Saint Paul has offered our children — and one we never expected or knew would be such a blessing to our family and to our children.”

Mrs. Beerman remains in contact with former adoptive students, mentioning she might notice it the most on her birthday, when many of them wish her a happy day over Facebook.

She also noted that the parents of the international students are very appreciative of the efforts adoptive families put into their children.

“If one of my children were to be an international student, I would certainly hope and pray that they, too, would connect with a healthy and fun and safe family… You can walk around Kansas City and think you’re learning about the culture, but when you’re in somebody’s home and you celebrate a birthday, or Christmas, you get things about the culture.”

Mrs. Beerman stresses that among other advantages the Adopt-a-Student program offers to the adoptive families, new families in the area can help their children become connected with Saint Paul by adopting a student.

“It is a lifelong friendship. They become a part of your family. There are so many benefits to it, and all it is is adding another kid to your table.”

Mrs. Beerman notes that host families aren’t required to have a student at Saint Paul. Additionally, for families not wanting to necessarily adopt a student, Mrs. Beerman recommends other avenues possible.

“You can call SPLHS and tell them you’d like to host a student for a holiday weekend… One of the things that we do — and this doesn’t have to be a parent or anything — is called the Touch of Home program.”

The Touch of Home program is offered through S.O.S. and takes items sent from the international students’ families and bakes goods for them.

For a full list of ways to help, interested parties can go to the SPLHS website and, under the “Parents” tab, click on the “S.O.S.” link. There, information about the S.O.S. program can be found, including a full listing of programs offered.

“We love our kids,” Beerman said. “We love our students. We want our international students to have the best educational experience, and once you’ve done this and connected with a student from another country, you’re really likely to do it again.”

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