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Oct. 15, 2021 | Friday
Local News
Expanding horizons and building relationships
Jessica Keller, Miranda Perrel and Omry Abed Alhay. (Supplied)

When Georgina Keller started taking in international students from Vineridge Academy as part of the Homestay program, she had no idea some would become a part of her family.

In the four years the private school has been open on Niagara Stone Road, Keller has housed students for three. She says she took in six long-term kids during that period and a few of them built lasting relationships with the family.

Miranda Parrel from Mexico blended with the family seamlessly, she says, and continues to remain in close contact even after returning home.

Vineridge opened in 2016, at the same time her daughter was entering her final year of high school. Keller says her daughter asked to attend Vineridge so she could go to school closer to home.

“My youngest daughter Jessica was going into her last year of high school and she’s kind of like, ‘Hey, the new school is coming here. It would be nice to go to school in my own community.’”

Jessica and Parrel are close in age and became fast friends, she says.

“They were like sisters and they’ve travelled quite a bit together,” Keller says. “It was nice to have them around. They’re chatting and doing homework together. Just to be able to help them and show them Canada was nice.”

Vineridge offered tuition assistance to students of host families, which was one incentive for opening her home, though Keller says it certainly wasn’t the only reason she started.

“The way they originally put it in the newspaper was that your student can go for free because you’ll be getting paid to house students. The school pays us a Homestay fee – room and board basically, and I just used that to pay her tuition,” she says.

Keller works with international students as an ESL teacher at Brock University and she says the opportunity to take in students from Vineridge just made sense for the family.

Not only was she able to help the students learn English faster than they would have by living in residence, the family also guided them in becoming more connected to the community.

One student she took in, Omry Abed Alhay, she met through the youth group at her church. She says he wasn’t happy at his original Homestay so it was decided he would stay with her as well.

At that time, she had Parrel and Alhay also.

“Jessica and Miranda were upstairs and Omry had the room in the basement. They all spent a lot of time together,” she says. And she has kept contact with both their parents as well, she says.

Above helping the students adapt to Canadian life, she says she has learned a lot from them.

She says the experience of housing kids from all over the world has really opened her eyes to other cultures in a way that visiting a resort or taking a tour through another country while on vacation never could.

“It’s an interesting way to meet people and learn about other cultures. It gives you a different perspective that there are other things happening outside of Canada,” she says.

“Miranda would tell us firsthand the things that were happening in Mexico, and the things that weren’t great. And then the things that were great, too.”

The experience made the world a littler smaller, Keller says, and it inspired her daughter to explore the world.

“It has made her more interested in travelling. January to April she went to Australia, Thailand, South Korea and Japan. I think it put that interest in travel in her,” she says.

Those contacts she made at school opened doors for her travelling as well.

“When she went to Thailand, she just messaged one of the boys from school that she knew, who invited her to stay with him and his family. So, she met with a friend and stayed with his family for a week.”

But more than increasing their interest in seeing the world, Keller said it was “really nice when they fit well with the family.”

“Around Christmas if we were doing something big and my family was here, we would all be together. For the one year Miranda was here for Christmas, if I was going to my family’s house she would come with us,” she says.

She says she learned to be more patient.

Though she doesn’t have any students this year, she says she would definitely do it again.

“I’m not ready to be an empty nester yet,” she says. “If you want to be a part of a family then Homestay is perfect.”