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Hosting exchange students opens new doors for Red Bay woman

Jessica Webb doesn’t have children of her own, but she has two high school students who have become just like part of her family: Maya, from Thailand, and Linnea, from Sweden.

Webb is a host parent for these two girls, who are studying abroad through the International Cultural Exchange Services. Little did she know when she first welcomed them into her home that she would go even further with ICES: Webb is now a local coordinator for the agency.

“It’s all about the kids,” Webb said. “It’s helping fulfill their goals and dreams. That’s what I want to be a part of.”

The not-for-profit ICES brings high-school aged students, 15-18 years old, to the U.S. to stay with a host family for a semester or 10 months. Students come from 25 countries across the world, including Brazil, Spain, China, France, Germany and Norway.

“It’s just really important – I’ve been in this business over 30 years, and I think the best way to promote world peace is one-on-one personal knowledge of another culture,” explained Eleita Kinard, a supervisor with ICES.

Students bring their own money and are fully-insured. Host families provide room and board, a loving family atmosphere and the cultural experience.

Webb, a home health aide with the Alabama Department of Public Health in Colbert County, said she has begun feeling out the area – she lives in Red Bay and can help host families in a 120-mile radius – and hopes to place her first exchange student soon.

“Anyone can do it,” Webb said. “You’ve got to be open to these kids. You’ve got to want to treat them as your own. As long as you have open arms to welcome the kids and meet ICES other criteria, then you are qualified to welcome a child into your home.”

Host homes can have up to two children, who must be from different countries. Host families go through a criminal background check and have in-home interviews with a local coordinator, like Webb, who will help them fill out the appropriate applications and then perform reference checks, coordinate with the school and serve as a liaison among the student, school, host family and ICES.

Students applying to become exchange students in the U.S. through ICES fill out extensive application packets that must include parent letters, teacher recommendations and complete physicals. Approved host families may choose the student or students they would like to host.

Kinard described the experience as “fun and challenging.”

“You’re dealing with teenagers, you’re dealing with children from another culture and not every family and student is a perfect match,” Kinard said.

Webb, who grew up in Hamilton, said she hopes to eventually host at least one student from each of ICES’ 25 countries. She said she has loved learning about the cultures of each of her exchange students – like how spicy Thailand’s food is, and how lax and laidback Swedish parents are.

“I just hope they can take back home that this has been one of the best experiences of their lives,” Webb said. “They are just like sisters … Both of them have told us they don’t ever want to go back home.”

Webb said when Maya and Linnea arrived, she and her husband asked each of them what was one thing they wanted to see during their time in America. One said snow; the other said alligators.

“We have done several things. We’ve explored out to the prayer wall in Florence; we went to Tishomingo State Park, the old Railroad Bridge in Florence and Gatlinburg, Tenn.,” Webb said. They are hoping for a good snow this winter and have an upcoming trip to Louisiana planned for an alligator tour.

Kinard said being a host family is a great opportunity for empty nesters, for example, or for parents who want to welcome a sister or brother for their child.

All exchange students speak conversational English.

“I always wanted to go to America because I really like the culture and thought it seemed really cool,” said Linnea, adding that she was tired of school in Sweden and just “wanted to get away for a while.”

She didn’t know anything about Alabama before she arrived but said the best part has been getting to meet new people and form new relationships. “It’s also the worst part because I’m going to have to go home,” she said. “It’s been a great experience.”

To find out more about hosting an exchange student, call Webb at 256-668-9001 or email her at