In 2022, the Damiens of Auburn welcomed their second exchange student. From left are Steve Damien, German exchange student Sofia, and Stefanie Mahr Damien. The Damiens still stay in touch with Sophia.

Stefanie Mahr Damien and her husband, Steve, have hosted two exchange students in their Auburn home since 2018.

“We are empty-nesters. My children are now 31 and 34. Steve’s children are twins that are 41. This is our second marriages. So, we affectionately call exchange students ‘our kids’ because we didn’t have kids together,” Stefanie says.

The Damien family had an abrupt introduction to hosting students from different cultures. However, they were able to navigate it.

In 2018, Stefanie happened to sit next to a Greenheart Exchange representative during a business networking event in Auburn. Greenheart Exchange is one of the many organizations that connect exchange students with local host families.

“She was at that meeting to ask if anybody was interested in hosting an exchange student. They had some students coming for that year and needed places for them to stay. I sat next to her and I looked at her and went, ‘Well, I have room,'” Stefanie recalls with a laugh.

The Damien family’s first guest was from Senegal. They had a rocky start.


“During orientation, the students were told you cannot have one foot in your country and one foot in America. You have to bring both feet to America,” Stefanie says.

At first, the student struggled to adapt to her new home because, Stephanie says, she didn’t follow that rule closely.

In time, she was able to immerse herself in a new environment and make friends.

Ultimately, she decided to stay with a different family.

“I think it was a success in the long run because she actually got to experience two totally different ways of life,” Stefanie says, referring to the two families the student ultimately stayed with.

The experience didn’t discourage the Damiens from wanting to host students. Stefanie fondly remembers her own first encounter with someone from a different culture.


When she was attending 10th grade in Columbus, Ohio, she had a classmate from Syria. “I remember how interesting it was to meet someone from away. From far, far away.”

The Damien family decided to host another student a few years later, in 2022. They believed the first experience was “very fulfilling” and worth trying again. This time, they opened their home to a student from Germany: Sofia.

“I have German heritage. My grandparents on my father’s side were from Germany. I thought it was interesting to connect with someone who was from Germany. It was luck of the draw,” Stefanie says.

The second experience proved to be easier.

“We still connect with Sofia. We send her Christmas and birthday cards. She’s invited us to come to Germany and visit her, which we think we might eventually do,” Stefanie says.

In early 2023, Sofia and Stefanie took a cooking class at Edward Little High School. Reflecting on the experience, Stefanie says she feels more connected to her community because of it.


The frequent visits and meeting new people at the school have made her more familiar with her community’s offerings.

“If you’ve got an extra room, do it. It’s a really great way to expand your horizons and your knowledge of the world. You don’t have to do all the extra things,” Stefanie says. “But it is fun to show off Maine.”

Kathy and Jon Hansen of Raymond have been hosting exchange students for decades. Kathy is also the executive regional director at Greenheart Exchange, a national organization that facilitates student exchanges. Submitted photo

Kathy Hansen of Raymond is the executive regional director of Greenheart Exchange in Maine, a national group that facilitates student exchanges. Before that, she was a parent looking for ways to teach her children about the world and its people.

“My husband and I have five children. I knew that some extra money we’d have would be saved for their college,” Hansen says. “We weren’t going to be taking these kids and traveling the world with them.”

Hosting exchange students seemed like an easier alternative to traveling as a family of seven. Hansen says she wanted to enrich her children’s lives to help them understand other cultures and clear out biases and prejudices. “Everybody has a reason why. Ours was education,” she remarks.

The Hansen family has been hosting exchange students from all over the world for 40 years. In 1988, their son decided to spend a year in Argentina after excelling in his Spanish classes.


“I was also a mom that sent an outbound student, as well as hosting,” Kathy says. “After that, I started volunteering.”

After decades of volunteering at Greenheart Exchange, Kathy believes aligning expectations between students and families is the biggest challenge to a positive experience for both parties.

“It’s what the students think it’s supposed to be. When they get here, it’s disappointment because it’s never what they think it’s going to be,” Hansen says. “The (host) family is just doing their thing. They’re just living their life, pulling another kid in the mix,” she continues. “The students will say, ‘We’re not comfortable (in this new environment).’ Well, you’re not supposed to feel comfortable. You’re halfway across the world with people you don’t know. That’s normal. That’s OK to be uncomfortable. It will take a while to feel comfortable.”

Communicating expectations early on helps, but trusting the process is also important, she and others say. That process includes having local coordinators who regularly check on the student and the family and arrange for another family in the case a first placement just doesn’t work out.

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years and I’ve never not found a home (that works out for the student),” Hansen says. “It’s never like the students are stuck in the camp. I think it’s a matter of trusting that somebody will be there.”

“The family and the students (should) know that the local coordinator will be there for them, that (the coordinator) will help them, that there is backup,” she says.

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