Paula McElroy – Silverwood, Michigan – Michigan AFS Team
Volunteer since 2002
How did you learn about AFS and what prompted you to get involved? My husband and myself learned about AFS after hosting with YFU for 2 years. The local YFU volunteer had moved to AFS and we moved with her as a hosting family. We volunteered at orientations that first year and hosted as well. So, at that point, we had hosted exchanged students for 3 years and had good experiences. We then went to Russia to adopt our daughter and so took 4 years off to focus on her adjustments. When our daughter, Katie, went into 4th grade, we felt it was the right time to continue hosting and volunteering with AFS. We have hosted and volunteered every year since.
What keeps you coming back to volunteer each year? I believe that the exchange program is important to our communities, our schools, and our nation. I firmly believe that I am expanding my own horizons when I learn about other cultures, but I am also giving my students and my local rural communities an opportunity to get to know the world around them better by having a personal experience with world cultures. I believe that getting to know and learning to love students from other cultures changes your worldview and makes you a better citizen of the United States and World. In turn, my work makes it possible for the exchange students to also change their worldview and become better citizens and in many cases future leaders in their own communities. So, not only do I have the opportunity to change my personal view of the world, but also I help to better my family, community, nation, and ultimately the world. It does not get any more important than that! I volunteer with AFS because I am convinced that AFS has the best quality exchange program out there. It has the best organizational structure and has the best support system for the students, host families, and host communities.
What’s a typical volunteer ‘shift’ like for you? Well, I don’t think I have a “shift” since I am a host mother too. My shift does not end. Because I am a liaison, sponsored programs coordinator, support coordinator, and local chapter coordinator for our newly formed chapter, I do whatever needs to be done when the time comes. I deal with support issues during the evening and weekends, my husband and myself design and host the orientations and conduct sponsored programs in between. I am also a liaison. I try to attend the Michigan Team meetings and am hosting the next one here in my local community. I would not be able to do all of this or keep up with this much responsibility without my husband who is also a host parent and very active volunteer. We really share the responsibilities of our local chapter.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected from your experience with AFS? I have learned that our world is a much smaller place than I had originally thought. I have found that the love of a family is universal, and that teenagers are “teenagers” no matter where they come from. I have learned how much I am capable of as a host mother, and a volunteer and coordinator. I have developed lifelong relationships with my exchange daughters. I have also developed quality friendships with the host families, AFS volunteers, and my local TDS.
Please share the best thing or funniest thing that’s happened to you while volunteering with AFS? I don’t think I can come up with one “best thing” since most of my experiences have been in the “best thing” category. I think probably the best thing about volunteering is seeing how the returning students grow and mature in their home communities. I love to have my exchange daughters come home for a visit and to see how they have matured and developed. I love staying in contact with our returnees and hearing how well they are doing and to worry and pray for them when they or their home countries are struggling.
The funniest thing that happened was last year when we took one of our chapter students with us to my parent’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. His name is Juri. My sister’s kids (3, 5 and 6 year old) was fascinated by this young person with bright red hair and a funny accent. They could not pronounce his name, so he told them that his name meant “George.” From that point on, and even today, almost a year after he went home he is called George
What do you want to say to people who might be interested in volunteering with AFS?
This is not something you volunteer for without being passionate about it. It involves long hours and weird times of the days and night and weekends. It is also going to pull every heartstring you have, and it can be emotionally tough and stressful. If you are not passionate about exchange programs and the kids and families we serve, it is probably not the thing to volunteer for. However, the pay-offs are huge and life changing. You will be changed through this experience, as will your family and community. If you are looking to exact positive change in your community and the greater global community, this is the type of volunteering you want to do.
What is one thing AFS volunteers and staff don’t know about you? I am a high school science and history teacher. My husband and myself have hosted 12 exchange students from: Hungry, Kazakhstan, Germany, Norway, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Armenia, Denmark, and Gaza. We will be hosting a YES student from the Philippines next year and are already excited about this. My family has a hobby of reenacting a Scottish Regiment during the French and Indian War. Our exchange students participate with us during the year. Along with this, I have researched and written a history of Women who followed the British Army during the Colonial Wars. I have a Master of Arts Degree in Early American and Medieval History from Oakland University and a Master of Science in Applied Science Education from Michigan Technological University.