School district struggling to find homes for international students

Kids from overseas help district finances, but shortage of host families in Penticton and Summerland could stall program

Thorge Sass

Thorge Sass

Having already brought up four kids of their own, a Penticton couple is one of dozens in the area who are taking on the task of helping raise other people’s children.

“It keeps you young. The quickest way to get old is not to have young people around,” said Patrick Witzaney, who, along with wife Beverly, has become a host parent to a 16-year-old German exchange student.

The Witzaneys are one of 39 families in the area with international students on whom the Okanagan Skaha School District has focused recruitment efforts.

Full-time students from overseas pay $12,000 a year in tuition, money the district can use to supplement shrinking government grants tied to declining enrolment. However, the school district’s top administrator is worried a lack of host families could stall growth of the international program before it even takes off.

“We know that we could attract more students to the community, but our ability to welcome these students will be dependent upon our ability to arrange home stays for the students,” said superintendent Wendy Hyer.

“We have space in our schools due to our declining enrolment, but we cannot utilize this space if the students have no place to stay.”

Hyer said the program, which creates jobs and brings money into the community, attracted 24 long-term students and generated a profit of $140,000 in 2012-13, and is on track to do better this year with 30 such visitors.

The Witzaneys opened their home at the suggestion of a friend who’s a long-time host parent.

“I enjoy young people — always have — so that made that part easy,” said Patrick, a retired flight services specialist who last worked for Nav Canada.

“My great grandparents were immigrants from Germany, so I thought: ‘You know, that could be fun.”

The newest member of the Witzaney family is Thorge Sass, who grew up in Celle, a German city of 70,000.

Sass arrived in Canada in August and is staying until next summer. He’s currently enrolled in Grade 11 at Penticton Secondary School, where he hopes to learn something about himself and the world, plus brush up on English.

He hooked up with the school district through an international placement agency.

“At first I wanted to go to Alberta, but nature was important to me so I decided on British Columbia,” Sass said.

He described his host parents as “kind and neat,” and was most surprised by their seemingly worry-free approach to home security.

“They don’t lock the door when they go out with the dog,” he said incredulously.

Bev Skinner, international student program facilitator for the school district, said she’s always recruiting new host families and is currently looking for 20 homes for a group of Korean students who are coming in January.

She added that students’ visits here range from one month to three years, so host families have a chance to do a short-term trial.

“Most of them have such a good time they would go in for the long-term,” Skinner said.

Host families receive $725 a month per student, and can accommodate a maximum of two kids. However, potential hosts must pass criminal record checks and are also carefully matched with students who share similar interests or lifestyles.

Interested families can contact her by email at bskinner@summer.com or apply online at www.sd67.bc.ca.