Local couple preps for exchange program

Photo by Johnny Jackson 
McDonough couple Julie and Jaime Gonzalez plan to host a German foreign exchange student this fall.

Photo by Johnny Jackson McDonough couple Julie and Jaime Gonzalez plan to host a German foreign exchange student this fall.

By Johnny Jackson


Julie and Jaime Gonzalez are excited about taking part in a foreign-exchange student program. "I think it's going to be a different experience," said Jaime, 40. "It will be a good learning experience."

The McDonough couple first learned about the not-for-profit Student American International (SAI) foreign-exchange program earlier this spring. They said, within a month, they decided to take part. They will be hosting Johanna "Hanna" Berkenfeld, of Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany. The youngster plans to enroll at Ola High School in east McDonough.

"She's well-rounded and well-educated," said Julie, 53, who added that she and Jaime have been getting to know the 15-year-old through e-mail correspondence.

Julie and Jaime were married eight years ago. Jaime has no children, but Julie has two adult children, Justina and Luis, from a previous relationship. Justina lives in McDonough with her two children, and Luis lives in Long Island, N.Y., Julie said.

The couple, who moved to McDonough from Long Island, N.Y., three years ago, have been preparing for Berkenfeld's arrival, July 23, by researching different activities to do with her during her 10-month stay in the Southern Crescent area.

A trip to Stone Mountain Park, and horseback riding tops the list, according to Jaime, who said the teenager enjoys horseback riding in her native Germany. Jaime said he may also introduce her to different American sports, such as baseball, and take her to the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park.

"It will be easy for us to give her support on sports, if she wants to do it," said Jaime, lead custodian at Ola Elementary School in McDonough. Julie is a retired Long Island code enforcement officer.

"We're going to learn a lot about her, and she's going to learn a lot about us," Julie said. "We're easy-going. We want whomever comes into our house to feel comfortable. I'm sure we'll grow fond of her."

Julie said she has some trepidation over making her domicile home to a teenager thousands of miles from her family and friends. "They're our responsibility while they're here," Julie said. "My biggest fear is she will get homesick. She's bound to get homesick."

Julie and Jaime have hosted children before, though a slightly younger set than Berkenfeld. From 2004 until 2006, the Gonzalez family took part in the Gift of Life Program, sponsored by the Long Island Rotary Club. Julie said the program matched families with small, sickly children from different parts of the world, in need of open-heart surgery.

"There was a need with Gift of Life," Jaime said. "We just like helping people, if we can. Now, if we don't give this kid a chance, how is she going to feel when she comes back as an adult."

Jaime said he is looking forward to learning more about life in Germany. "We get to hear from her, and how teenagers live over there," said Jaime, who has much to showcase in his own lifestyle.

The Puerto Rican-born Connecticut native considers himself an outdoorsman, charmed by big game hunting. He and his wife, both Spanish-speaking, enjoy indulging in the island territory's colorful cultures and cuisines. The pair moved to McDonough from Long Island to achieve a "slower pace" in life. They joined St. James Catholic Church in McDonough, where they learned about the foreign exchange student program.

Julie said she was initially overwhelmed by the level of hospitality and politeness in Georgia, but has been adjusting to the more relaxed lifestyle. She said they hope to make life in the South a fruitful learning experience for them and their house guest, Berkenfeld.

"The host family benefits should be to have a friend for life in another culture, and to learn about another culture," said Student American International (SAI) Area Coordinator Jinx Ratcliffe. "The benefits are also to have an opportunity to share the American family culture with someone from another culture."

Julie and Jaime Gonzalez are one of six families in metro Atlanta that already have volunteered to host students in the 2010-11 SAI Foreign Exchange Student Program.

"Every year, there are a few that are not coming because we couldn't find a family nationwide," said Ratcliffe, adding that she hopes about a dozen families in the area end up participating in this year's program.

To learn more about applying for the SAI Foreign Exchange Student Program, visit the organization's web site at www.studentamericaninternational.com, or contact Ratcliffe at (770) 477-1376.