Host families, foreign exchange students share cultures, customs

  • Greenfield resident Mariah Kurtz, left, with German student Luise Wetzel, 17, at Poet’s Seat Tower. Kurtz and her husband, Bill Pennington, enrolled in a host family program for exchange students that brought Wetzel into their home for the school year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • German student Luise Wetzel, 17, left, attends a Greenfield High School game. Wetzel is staying with CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield residents Mariah Kurtz and Bill Pennington enrolled in a host family program for exchange students that brought German student Luise Wetzel, 17, into their home for the school year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield residents Mariah Kurtz and Bill Pennington enrolled in a host family program for exchange students that brought German student Luise Wetzel, 17, into their home for the school year. Wetzel, along with her mom and mom's boyfriend, even got to attend Kurtz and Pennington's wedding before returning to Germany. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2022 10:48:21 AM
Modified: 8/11/2022 10:45:06 AM

After participating in a foreign exchange student program when she was in high school, Mariah Kurtz and her partner Bill Pennington decided to take the plunge and become a host family themselves.

Kurtz and Pennington soon found themselves heading to the airport to pick up 17-year-old Luise Wetzel, a high school senior from Germany. In a funny coincidence, Kurtz said Wetzel was from a town just 20 minutes away from where she studied when she was in high school.

“My partner and I don’t have kids, but we really like having them in our lives,” Kurtz, a Greenfield resident and Erving’s assistant town planner, said. “It was a great time, it was very fun introducing a student to Greenfield and being able to share what Greenfield and Franklin County are like.”

With the school year set to begin in a few weeks, foreign exchange students are poised to enroll in schools around Franklin County and local organizations are looking for families, like Kurtz and Pennington, who are interested in hosting a student for the year.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for families to learn about the culture and customs of another country without leaving their home,” said Patricia Darby, the area coordinator for Northwest Services’ PEACE program, which exchanges high school students around the world. “You gain a new son or daughter and it’s a friendship for a lifetime.”

Jackie Walsh, a coordinator with Program for Academic Exchange (PAX) and a previous host family participant, said hosting international students is a “really great” opportunity to learn more about different cultures, while also introducing a young person to a whole new world of learning.

“You start to see what we have to offer through their eyes,” Walsh said.

Both NW Services PEACE and PAX’s programs set no standard definition of a host family, so families of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to register.

Additionally, students are hand-picked and must meet the following list of requirements: good grades in school, must speak English, are fully insured, and bring their own spending money. Students and families are also matched up based on interests and lifestyle choices.

Once in the U.S., students are enrolled in local schools — Wetzel went to Greenfield High School — and families are encouraged to spend time and participate in activities with them.

For Kurtz, one of the first things she and Pennington did was take Wetzel to a peach orchard and then to a demolition derby.

“It’s fun to introduce things that are very American, very Franklin County,” Kurtz said. “It was a really fun experience for us, not having kids of our own, it was unique.”

Even better, Kurtz said, Wetzel got to play a part in her marriage to Pennington as the student was still in the U.S. for their wedding.

“We were planning our wedding already when we decided (to enroll in the program),” Kurtz said, noting their wedding was right before Wetzel returned to Germany. “Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend actually came over for the wedding … it was kind of a big party for our marriage and for her time here.”

The fall, Darby said, is also a great season to introduce foreign students to America because we celebrate so many unique holidays here — especially if kids are coming from outside of European and Christian backgrounds. Here in Franklin County, we also get four distinct seasons, which is a unique aspect many parts of the world miss out on.

“You get to introduce them to things in America that they don’t know about — Thanksgiving, Halloween, things like that,” Darby said. Around Christmas, Darby said they often bring all of the program’s students together for a Yankee Swap, which is always a fun sort of culture shock. “No student, no matter what country they’re from, has seen a Yankee Swap.”

Darby and Walsh said there is no deadline for applying to become a host family, but “the sooner we can do, the better,” Walsh noted.

How to apply

NW Services’ PEACE Program is looking for several students to place around the county and more information can be found at or by emailing Darby at PAX is looking to place three students at the Academy at Charlemont and more information can be found at or by contacting Walsh at

The relationships, Walsh and Darby said, can last a lifetime. For Kurtz, she said that she and Pennington keep in contact with Wetzel through WhatsApp and social media and they are currently planning a trip to Europe to visit.

“I’m a town planner, for us it was very nice to be able to share our community with her,” Kurtz said, adding that Wetzel volunteered at Stone Soup Cafe one weekend. “They really get attached to the community and that means a lot to us.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at or 413-930-4081.

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