Family Reflects on Hosting Students with Disabilities

Ivan and six other FLEX students smiling
Chuck and Chris Pamperin have been hosting international students in their home for decades, including students with disabilities. In their eyes, hosting benefits everyone involved, sometimes in unexpected ways, and often for years after students return to their home countries.

The Pamperins first learned about Ivan, a Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Russia, from a youth exchange organization, States’ 4-H, that places students in their area. “Ivan’s name was at the top of the list of incoming international exchange students and we noticed very quickly that he has cerebral palsy (CP).” They had previously hosted a Japanese student who uses a wheelchair.

While the Pamperins believe it’s good for all of the students in their Wisconsin community to meet international students, “to be exposed to the idea that even if you have a disability, you can travel to another country - that’s good for our local disabled students to see.”  In addition, the Pamperins saw their first host student with a disability grow more confident in asking for help when she needed it, and exercising her rights – even taking a trip without her host parents to Washington D.C.

“There is a lot of learning that can go on without even trying.”

Upon returning to Japan, instead of not wanting to bother train station attendants for assistance, “she stood her ground as a person who is entitled to assistance.” This was a big leap from having never ridden mass transit by herself to traveling all over Japan, and ultimately to Germany and Australia. “It opened a lot of eyes, including her parents’ eyes, for her to have experienced a culture where she isn’t hidden away and is embraced by her classmates and community.”

In Ivan’s case – the Pamperins prepared as much as possible to anticipate any support needs he may have. They were prepared to make minor modifications to their home, if needed, such as installing grab bars in the bathroom, and discussed with the guidance counselor simple accommodations that Ivan might need in his high school. “The school district was very willing to work on that.” Had he needed it, Ivan would have had access to an elevator and early dismissal from his classes.

Looking back, they may have been over-prepared. Ivan arrived with a lot of energy and a fiercely independent spirit. He met concerns from others, such as the risk of falling, by working through issues in his own way and on his own terms. Over the course of the school year, Ivan found opportunities to be involved in his school community and volunteer service with Rotary International’s Interact club and his school’s chess and German clubs.

Even with all of the positive aspects about disability that Chris and Chuck have learned first-hand, they are not overly focused on this aspect of the hosting experience. When asked what they have gained from hosting Ivan, their focus is on supporting youth and learning about other countries and cultures.

“Ivan shows a lot of promise for the future and hopefully will do some big things in Russia. We have high expectations for him.”

In the end, that’s the best motivation a host family can have.