Host family – why, what for, how come?
“Inner preparedness, an open heart and a willingness to reach out to people.” This is how Andreas Lanksch describes the qualities that potential host families should possess. He and his family of five received two volunteers from Tanzania and Uganda as part of the “weltwärts” South-North programme in spring of 2018. The two women completed their service with the local partner organisations as well as with Kolpingwerk Germany. For 12 months they were officially a part of the family – unofficially, they still are.
The path to becoming a host family
In 2013, Carolin, the daughter of Andreas and Beate Lanksch, spent a year in Tanzania as part of the “weltwärts” programme. She lived with a host family and experienced first hand how enriching life with a family can be when doing volunteer service. She returned with this insight and talked to her parents about it.
The first reaction of her parents was pretty much a mixed one: Since all three of their children were still living at home, the question of space took front and centre: But Carolin didn’t let that stop her. She stuck to her plan and was able to instil enthusiasm in her father, who works for the Kolpingwerk. In the end, the family made the decision together:
The vote margin was narrow. All in all, the vote within the family showed two votes for the “adventure”, two abstentions and one vote against.
Some families might have backed down at this point. But Andreas and Carolin stood so staunchly behind the idea that Carolin immediately cleared her room out to make space for the two volunteers. When asked whether it wouldn’t be better to provide one room for each guest child, she replied that a private room is never a bad idea but that everything turned out fine – probably not least because Sandra and Arijenida – known as Ari – were on the same wavelength. Andreas Lanksch says: “Your own private room makes sense but isn’t essential. It’s probably a matter of attitude: When you want something, you’ll find a way.
Once the decision to be a host family was made, their anticipation and expectations rose. There were no specific concerns about the unknown. Indeed, the Lanksch family saw it as an opportunity to gain new experience and enter into a dialogue with other cultures.
They did not do anything special in advance. Nonetheless, they would advise future host families to sound out the expectations of both themselves and the volunteers.
The time as a host family – a way to leave the comfort zone
“Learn from one another, question expectations and speak openly” – that’s probably the way to meet most challenges you encounter as a host family, according to the Lanksch family. Despite Carolin’s intercultural knowledge and her training in social education, there were moments that were novel to all involved. Talking and open communication always helped in these situations.
Of course, the language barrier can be a hindrance. Although the volunteers must present proof of their German language skills, language acquisition is also one of the goals of the “weltwärts” service; this is why they attend language courses during their stay in Germany. It also means that communication is a little difficult at first. Beate Lanksch says: “It’s important to overcome this language barrier. To do so, you have to leave your comfort zone and refresh the little English you have. Better to speak broken English than no English at all. – You must have courage, but it will be rewarding for everyone.”
So things are a little suspenseful and challenging during the early days; but when you notice some progress, it’s fun.
“To be a host family means to undergo a continuous learning process.”
Hence the South-North service is not only a learning process for the volunteers but also for the host families involved. The Lanksch family describes how they developed in terms of language and how they learned to question their normal life and their ingrained habits. Living with Ari and Sandra helped them reduce stress during their time off: On Sundays, the two girls often just wanted to relax and enjoy a quiet day; they did not always want to take part in the Sunday goings-on and excursions of the Lanksch family. The family noticed that the girls sometimes only took part in the activities out of a sense of duty, so they re-considered their own free time activities.
All in all, the Lanksch family sees challenges but no obstacles: “You’re confronted with a number of requirements, but there’s nothing that can’t be overcome or that’s unsolvable.” The challenges crop up one at a time so you can meet them one by one. Dealing with immigration authorities was an instance that stuck in their memory. But even here they appreciate the benefits the experience brought them: “To be a host family means to undergo a continuous learning process.”
"And suddenly you have two more children."
When asked whether there were specific moments when they realised it was the right decision, they all come up with an answer. The great family weekend on the North Sea; the dance performance on grandpa’s 80th birthday; the first “Mom” and “Dad”. At first, Andreas had to get used to being called that by the two guest daughters. Now he can’t imagine it any differently: “When Sandra attempted to call us by our first names, it was pretty weird to everybody. They even say Grandma and Grandpa. And suddenly, you have two more children.”
The two sons of the Lanksch family were somewhat more critical of the whole host family business. But there came a point at which they made an about-face. In retrospect, they are quite happy about the time with Ari and Sandra.
The family got a lot of support from their village. They received donations in kind in the form of winter clothes, which the two girls didn’t bring with them. The time helped to reduce preconceptions, especially with regard to the older generation.
The outcome for the guest family
From the perspective of the Lanksch family, any family can be a host family: You just need inner preparedness, an open heart and a willingness to reach out to people. The readiness to break out of the rut, to change the way you do things, accept different ways of living and leave your own comfort zone are as important as accepting the new “normality” that the volunteers bring to the family.
When asked whether any family could be a host family, everyone answers in harmony: You must be prepared and ready, because being a host family means work. You must be willing to let the volunteers be who they are and give them their own space. What you don’t need is special skills or a lot of money. You need to want to do it plus time and energy.