Not your Typical Exchange Student Experience

This week marks the 5th anniversary of meeting Pedro González Arbona, a short-term Spanish exchange student, and his adoption into our family.  Every year at this time, my internal clock reminds me and sends me down memory lane.  That’s because Pedro’s arrival in our home set a series of life-changing events in motion for me emotionally, spiritually, and with my writing.

While our adventures that first summer were fairly typical of the experiences of host families and their students, the relationship that ensued was not typical.  It led to a deep connection between his mother and me as we prepared for our mothers to pass away; it led to launching Pedro’s music and film composing career; and it led to my church mission to Spain last fall.

Welcome poster

Pedro’s welcome poster, July 2010.

Five Years of Celebrations

So for the last four years, I’ve deliberately marked the occasion in some personal way.

Five years later, and I realized I had never publically shared the behind the scenes story of how this all came to be.  Even the way in which Pedro ended up in our home was not the usual course of events that occurs when signing up to host a foreign exchange student. It was a whirlwind of surprises and quick decisions a few short weeks before Pedro arrived in America.

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Rekindling an Old Friendship

The story starts in June 2010.  My oldest son was a senior in high school and auditioned to perform a classical piano piece at the Baccalaureate ceremony.  The evening of his audition, our son shared over dinner that one of the judges was Kris, a family friend from our old neighborhood.  We’d lost touch with each other through the years.  She remembered my son from way back when our kids played together.

After years of no contact, I decided to connect with Kris over email.  That started a nice string of replies back and forth and the rekindling of an old friendship.  My son passed the audition, and we made plans to see each other at the ceremony later that month.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Looking for Host Families

A few days later, Kris sent us an email about Education First (EF), the exchange program that she was in charge of for our area.  She asked us if we would be interested in hosting a student.  44 students from France and Spain were arriving in 4 weeks and they still needed homes for some of the students.

My husband and I had a Finnish exchange student through Rotary International in our home early on in our marriage (over 20 years ago) before we had kids.  It was such a fun experience; we were open to doing it again, and sharing the experience with our now teenage sons.

We had never heard about the EF program.  We learned EF was a short-term program, generally just a few weeks.  Some years the program involved students being in language classes during the day.  Other years the program entailed multiple planned field trips for the students, and lots of unscheduled time to be immersed in the culture and life of their host families. This particular year, was the latter program for 4 weeks in July.

We talked it over as a family and decided to give it a try.  We filled out the application, went through the home interview process, and had our references checked.  Since most everyone in my family had taken some Spanish in school, we requested to host a Spanish male student in our home.  We anxiously awaited word of who our host son would be.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Matching Host Families and Students

Ten days later, I eagerly opened the email that matched families with students.  When I read our host son’s profile, I was surprised to see that he didn’t play the piano.  During the initial interview process, Kris shared that there was definitely at least one student who played the piano and that we would be matched with him.

From the moment the opportunity to host an exchange student came up, I felt God was calling me to stretch myself outside of my comfort zone.  I was excited about welcoming a student into our home, but I was also nervous about it.

So when I noticed that the student assigned to our family did not play the piano, I prayed about what to do.  Was I to blindly trust that this was ‘the student’ for us?  Was I supposed to speak up and make our desires known?

I contacted Kris about our assigned student.  Her response was welcome news.  She made a mistake in assigning the students.  We were supposed to be matched with a young man from Spain who played the piano.  His name was Pedro!

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

First Contact

Our family had the advantage of knowing a little bit about Pedro and his family by way of the profile sheet that he filled out as part of the EF program.  Right away I sent Pedro an email introduction and family photo.  He quickly replied, sharing his excitement to visit Seattle, and about his love of music and cinema.  He had also looked up our location on Google Maps, said how beautiful it looked, and naturally asked about the rain.

Communication was also then initiated with his parents, Rosa and Rafa.  In our first email from his parents, they told us we “have friends in Spain if you want to come to visit.”  (Three years later I took them up on that offer.)

Several emails followed over the next two weeks before his arrival in our home.  It was a crazy time for us.  Our son was graduating from high school and we had an out of town trip planned to a family wedding.  Somehow I managed to prepare the house and my spirit to welcome this young man into our home in short order.  (I’m sure prayer had something to do with it.)

We had a fun filled 4 weeks together exploring Washington State, and learning about each other’s countries and cultures.  And of course, Pedro played the piano every chance he got.  Unbeknownst to us, he was also playing some of his own compositions, like “Portman,” still one of my favorites.   A few months later, he sent us “Seattle,” a song he composed and dedicated to my family.  (Click to view studio recordings or listen to songs on the media player in right sidebar.)

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

A Match Made in Heaven

I’ve never regretted opening up our home to an exchange student or specifically to Pedro.   We were so attached to Pedro, we invited him back the next summer for a personal visit.  Five years later our families still maintain regular contact via email, Skype, or Whatsapp messaging.

It was truly a match made in heaven.

The experience has expanded my definition of family and stretched my heart, my mind, and my faith in amazing ways.  Sometimes the geographical and language barriers make our relationship challenging.  Other times it brings such great joy.

When we agreed to host an exchange student in our home, I never thought I was signing up for this kind of long-term commitment.  But I was open to being used by God; and I trusted Him each step along the way.

I have been immensely blessed by Pedro, Rosa, Rafa, and the rest of his family.  They were a conduit for the Lord’s healing to be manifested with the passing of my mother several months after Pedro returned home.  (That is the story published in Journeys to Mother Love.)  Rosa is my Sister in Christ.  I am a proud benefactor of Pedro’s music (pgarbona.com), and relish our friendship.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Be the Blessing

We never know how God is going to use some small act of kindness to bless us or others.  I hope you will give heed the next time He nudges you to do something outside of your comfort zone.  The blessing may just be on the other side of obedience.

Pedro EF

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2 Comments

  1. Ardis, You amaze me with how you write. I love how you organize your thoughts. It was fun reading this recap of what took place over four years. I marvel at what a great story it is especially when I realize all of the actual day to day living within that time frame for you. You did so much research, put so much heart and soul into this time period and every step of the way showed faith in action. I marvel at all the stories that came out of the past four years. How blessed you are. And what a blessing you are to so many. And in ways you will never know at this time. For me personally, I am awestruck by the divine design. How we met many years ago yet didn’t quite interact as friends at that point then come together in a Bible study, go to lunch and realize we sat next to each other at a women’s dessert and had been in the same women’s group at church years prior. The book you are published in served me well in my quest to honor my mother with the respect she deserves. (I have always respected her) I had some difficulty embracing her as she chooses to live her life in a way I am not. It helped me give her grace and simply love her as I do and want to without expectations rather with the unconditional love that has always been for me. Precious that she is.

    Thank you in many ways of sharing your friendship and story. With my daughter persuing music, you give me hope from noticing how you researched to find ways to make things happen without really knowing what to do. Another similar experience was my trip to Spain just before yours. And your party with the wonderful friends and food and sharing of your trip! The help you gave me to encourage me with starting the Moms group!!! That was another huge piece for me! Giving me an opportunity to speak publicly at your book signing! That was special to do for recognizing you yet amazingly helpful to me in showing me I could speak publicly confidently. I could write so much more. This is just a summary, similar to what you have written. I am marveling. And every day I am thankful for my relationship with Christ! He is the one that centers me and that is my joy that allows me in all moments of every one, each day, that allows me to share His light with those I walk with and beside and for those I don’t even know. That is when the power of prayer is present in my every day walk. In a moments notice, I know I can pray. Thank you Ardis for being so lovely. I about went on and on. Being lovely is quite a statement on its own. I love you my friend. Thank you for many special memories and for being simply who you are! Authentic and one who acknowledges Christ! Amen! ❤️

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    • Susan, your comments have given me much pause. Thank you dear friend! I praise God that He using my story to help you on your journey. I definitely see how God is using you in big ways through Moms and SVA. You are growing and reflect His image in beautiful ways. You were a ray of sunshine and encouragement to me at some pretty key points along my journey these past few years, like my book signing. Thank you for those lovely reminders of those blessed events. Peace to you dear Sister. May the Lord continue to use you for His Kingdom purposes. ❤

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  • WELCOME to my site!

    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

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