BELLEVILLE — Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner and his wife, Katie Hoerner, a teacher at Belleville East High School, did not plan on hosting a German exchange student this year.
The Hoerners thought they would wait until their twin girls reached high school before participating in the Belleville Sister Cities' youth exchange program.
But the Hoerners changed their mind when they learned that 15-year-old Jenny Hillebrand's housing situation in Belleville fell through.
"It's something we didn't think of doing because the kids are so young, but we didn't want her to come all the way to America and stay on a couch," Katie Hoerner said.
For the past three months, Jenny and two other German students have been living in Belleville and attending Belleville West High School.
Jenny, Anna Fee Wefelmeier and Verena Dorniss returned to Paderborn on Sunday.
The program marked its 24th anniversary in July. Nearly 200 high school students from Belleville and sister city Paderborn, Germany have participated since the program started.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said the initial host family was not prepared to accommodate an exchange student, so Jenny was temporarily staying at his home.
The Eckerts, however, already had a full house in August because they were hosting other exchange students.
"I said to Garrett, 'Every bedroom is taken and I have people, German students everywhere," Eckert said. "He talked to Katie and came back and said, 'Our daughters are a little younger but we may be able to help you out.' ...These guys really bailed us out."
Belleville resident Libie Clements stepped up in a similar way, Eckert said, before Paderborn student Anna Fee Wefelmeier, 15, arrived in Belleville.
The family that was supposed to host Anna Fee had to cancel about five weeks before she arrived.
Verena, 15, stayed with Scott and Sarah Shelton, who were also first-time hosts.
Eckert said he appreciates all the new volunteer families. He hopes their experiences will encourage other families, even those with younger children, to consider hosting.
"I know what it has done for my kids," Eckert said. "They've made some lifelong friends."
'In a day of a family'
Anna Fee said she visited New York and other parts of the East Coast about four years ago, but she wanted to participate in the exchange to learn more about the country.
"When you come here for vacation, you don't really meet people," Anna Fee said. "When you live with a host family, you see a different side of the culture, the 'In a day of a family.'"
Anna Fee split her time in Belleville with Clements and the Eckerts, eating dinner and doing homework with Eckert's youngest daughter, Lucy, who she calls her "American sister."
For three months, the three German teens experienced American culture, such as Homecoming and Halloween, and how Belleville celebrates its German heritage, with events like Oktoberfest.
Anna Fee said she was shocked how Belleville West High School resembles the high schools in scenes from American movies she has watched.
"The (Homecoming) football game was like a movie," Anna Fee said. "Going to school every day, I think, 'I'm in a movie.'"
Anna Fee's high school in Paderborn is not as large as Belleville West. There are no lockers, and afterschool sports and clubs are not associated with the school.
Instead of multiple dances a year, German students only get one school dance when they graduate and their families attend the party.
The students also visited the Arch, went to a Cardinals game and ate at the Chili Cook-Off. They took weekend trips to Chicago or Orlando.
Jenny said she has dreamed of going to a Broadway show. The Hoerners took her to The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis.
"I think I watched her more than I watched the stage," Katie Hoerner said.
In early October, they gathered for the annual Taste of Germany fundraiser held by Belleville Sister Cities to benefit the youth exchange program. The dinner featured German food, like huhnerschnitzel (chicken cutlets) and apfel kompott (applesauce), and music by the Deutchmeister Brass Band.
Jenny said she's surprised how much Belleville residents know about Germany.
"Like the (Taste of Germany) dinner," Jenny said. "I never thought there would be something like this in America."
Sisters, role models
Scott Shelton said his daughter, Hannah Bauer, is interested in going to Paderborn through the exchange program next year.
Hosting Verena was a good way for Hannah, 16, to learn about Germany from someone her own age before traveling, Shelton said.
And now, Hannah has someone she already knows and can stay with in Paderborn.
Shelton said hosting has been great for Hannah.
"For one, she has two older brothers and no sister, so it's like having a good friend she can talk to living with her," Shelton said.
Shelton said hosting has been a neat experience and he found it helpful to host a student close to his daughter's age.
"They could do things together, like the Homecoming Dance," Shelton said. "Since Hannah can drive, we don't have to take them everywhere."
Katie Hoerner said any doubts she had about hosting and the age difference evaporated when her 11-year-old fraternal twins, Abby and Diana Hoerner, met Jenny.
The twins see Jenny as an older sister and when the twins bicker, they remind Jenny of her own brother.
The girls like the same shows on the Disney Channel, like "Good Luck Charlie" and "Liv and Maddie."
Abby and Diana, who take gymnastics classes, said their goal was to get Jenny to do the splits before she leaves.
"And we do her hair a lot," Diana said.
Katie Hoerner said it takes some work coordinating everyone's schedules and getting the girls to school.
Other than that, the three host families have helped each other and done activities together. And, the German students are mature and resourceful.
"They don't need to be entertained," Katie Hoerner said. "They're adept at making their own friends. They don't just sit back waiting for other people to plan. They come with their eyes wide open and an idea of the experience they want to have."
Katie Hoerner said she is impressed by how the German students are undaunted by meeting new people and trying new things.
"They're good role models," Katie Hoerner said. "I'd like my girls to be fearless like this. Curious and adventurous, but also make good choices."
About the program
The youth exchange program has a summer exchange, which lasts for about three weeks, and a fall exchange, which lasts about three months.
For the summer exchange, about 12 Paderborn students come to Belleville in odd years and about 12 Belleville students go to Paderborn in even years.
The fall exchange, which started in 2006, goes from August to November.
Doris Roach, coordinator of the exchange program, said the fall exchange has been a success but she is always in need of volunteer host families.
"Once you do it, you'll absolutely love it," Roach said.
To participate in the youth exchange program, contact Roach at email@example.com or 234-3633.