Is it an exchange program? That’s the number one question we received from friends and family unfamiliar with The Greatest Exchange. And while we did have a young lady from a different country living in our home for one month, the experience provided so much more than a standard exchange program would. Take a walk with us as we reminisce on being a first-time host family for The Greatest Exchange.
Kelly, who formed this program five years ago, had a short stay living in Kazakhstan where she fell in love with the young women that she met there. She wanted to create a way to bridge the gap between American life and Kazakh life and wanted to sustain relationships with them when moving back to America.
And so, Kelly’s program’s mission is simple: she needed to cross oceans to move mountains. And soon, many Jacksonville, FL families and organizations bought into the concept and have supported young Kazakh women to experience America who would normally not have had the opportunity.
Meeting One Another
There was so much build-up in finally meeting one another that we just couldn’t stand it! Kelly, the creator of The Greatest Exchange (GE) chose Eliza as our fit and we received her Facebook name, What’s App number and other ways to connect. I was jumping up and down the first time I sent her a message and she responded (ten hours later, since Kazakhstan is in a way different time zone).
We knew very little about Eliza before we officially met her, but that was part of the excitement. Although we didn’t get a ton of time to talk during our first meet-and-greet team dinner, a dinner where the girls working at the same location met as families, we were still so excited that we were officially in the same place at the same time!
For the past five years, Kelly has been meeting with girls in the country of Kazakhstan, just south of Russia, who know English, are in university (college) and have wonderful hearts. And all eight of these women, not just Eliza, became immediate family to all GE participants.
Landon and Griffin would shout out, “Look, there’s Nastia! Or mom, is that Nargis?” as we walked around our neighborhood. And there were plenty of perks for me as a host mom, too, with weekly Women’s Gatherings and opportunities to have fellowship with other wonderful local women.
The First Days
One of the tips that we received from past host families (and we had made a goal for ourselves), was to not try to be someone who we weren’t for Eliza while she lived in our home. So we scheduled our days as we normally would: Logan heads to work, we go to Trinity Fitness and the pool while Eliza works and then we spend the evenings together, having dinner, talking and playing games.
While we made some special first memories, there was also a sudden and early on sadness that filled our home just days after Eliza arrived. We had heavy hearts as our dog of eight years, Jersey, was passing away any day from a sudden and tough round of jaw cancer. Just four days after Eliza arrived, Logan and I said goodbye to our first pet and fur child.
This situation filled us with immense sadness, but it also opened up the door for us to talk with Eliza about what we thought was important in life and our faith. And while we still talked about Jersey and included Eliza in our reminiscing, we knew we had to move forward and show Eliza what our a day in our American life looked like.
During those first days, we visited our neighborhood pool, grabbed dinner in downtown Jacksonville, taught Vacation Bible School together and taught Eliza something really important: how to play Pie Face 😉
And Eliza joined us in experiencing the other side of sadness: happiness. Ten days after losing Jersey, we welcomed Warrior, a rescue eight-month old Lab/Shepherd mix to our mix!
One really, really good reason to be a host family for The Greatest Exchange is because you get to become a tourist in you very own city all over again! We had so much fun exploring some of the Jacksonville area’s finest vacation spots with Eliza.
Since Logan works downtown, we hopped into the car, headed to MOSH, Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History for our first excursion. The boys were fighting over spending time with Eliza instantly!
Another wonderful weekend trip led us to Amelia Island where we were tourists by foot and boat. We explored Fort Clinch State Park, an awesome way to walk through some American history with Eliza and then relaxed by boat to see Cumberland Island National Seashore through an awesome excursion company.
Surfing and an Oceanarium
The salt water was calling us and we listened! Eliza enjoyed a wonderful morning of surfing lessons through a super cool organization called Christian Surfers, arranged by a fellow host mom. And then we headed off to Marineland where Eliza and Landon got to interact up close to dolphins! You can read all about this special experience here.
As one of our final excursions, a fellow host mom and I arranged a day out at The Spa at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club. It was such a sweet chance to score some girl time and to chat without interruptions from our kiddos.
One of our favorite takeaways from being a host family with The Greatest Exchange was learning more about Kazakh culture, specifically their food. These ladies absolutely loved to cook for us. I will never forget that within the first week of Eliza living with us, she was already begging me to get dates on the calendar to cook Kazakh food for us.
The meals were wonderful, WONDERFUL! But filling our home with these women who are beautiful inside and out was an even better treat.
Our Favorite Moments
While some of my favorite moments involved just lounging around on our couch, learning fascinating facts about the country of Kazakhstan (they use a sheep to do what in that sport?!), these were a few of my favorite moments:
Introducing Eliza to Trinity Fitness
One place that Logan and I are passionate about is Trinity Fitness, a gym that is so much more than a gym. And so we were thrilled to have Eliza come on out and join us for the workouts, even at 5:30am!
Watching Eliza Order from Amazon
Online shopping is very rare in Kazakhstan, and so Logan and I had a ball watching Eliza order her first item off Amazon.com with a gift card. Seriously, the whole thing put huge smiles on our faces.
Attending an American Wedding and a Formal Dinner
Although Eliza and I were both feeling ill the night of the wedding, I was so excited to have Eliza visiting us when Logan’s sister, Lauren, was getting married. We had so many great conversations about what weddings look like here in the U.S. vs. Kazakhstan. We also enjoyed a nice evening out for a sit-down dinner with our Trinity Fitness family.
“Have you ever played Corners?” It started as a simple question that turned into an obsession in our home. My chess-loving hubby was hooked on this new Russian game using a chessboard and we may have already played it once since Eliza has left.
The Farewell (and our Takeaways)
After one month of living with us, Eliza was prepared to move on to her second host family’s home, a family whom we love and admire and she stayed with last summer. Our hearts felt sad knowing this experience was over, but in many ways we know that the experience is really just beginning (we’re already mapping out future plans to visit Kazakhstan!)
Logan and I’s biggest takeaway? Eliza cared more about serving others than herself. She frequently shared how her family was her number one priority and how she would make difficult life changes if it meant her family would be happy.
Remember that Amazon.com gift card? Well, Eliza spent hours researching the internet for the perfect thing…to buy her sister. I don’t know if I could say if I was in a lavish Kazakh market if I’d be thinking about purchasing something for my sister and not myself.
We hope and pray that until we host again, we can focus on this scripture that God kept reminding us of while hosting Eliza:
Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
xo, The James Family
Landon’s favorite part of The Greatest Exchange: ice skating with Eliza
Griffin’s favorite part of The Greatest Exchange: playing with Eliza