Shawn and Stacy Gaston decided to share their home and culture with German foreign exchange student Paul Rothe, 16. Rothe, who is enrolled at Alcovy High School in Newton County, has experienced a few “firsts” while living with the Gastons — including high school football and an American Thanksgiving. (Special Photo: Marissa Taylor)
COVINGTON — Shawn Gaston and his wife, Stacy, may not be a typical host family for a foreign exchange student, but the Newton County couple knew they would enjoy the experience of learning about another culture and helping a student do the same.
The Gastons are a young couple with no children of their own, and Shawn is a quadriplegic, which made their chances of being chosen as a host family more difficult. They were successful through perseverance, however, and are now hosts to 16-year-old Paul Rothe from Germany, who is attending Alcovy High School.
“It seemed like a good opportunity to bring culture into our home and also bring culture to the student,” Stacy Gaston said. “It’s neat to experience different culture opportunities, to experience a student in the home before taking the giant leap of having or adopting a child.”
The couple turned to the Education First Foundation, excited to experience life with a teenager in their house, especially one from a different part of the world.
“One of our friends hosted a student a few years ago, and it took a year and a half plus some home visits before we expected a student in our home,” Shawn Gaston said.
Their first time around, the couple wasn’t so lucky.
“We were told being in a wheelchair would decrease our chance of getting an exchange student, and that it would be tougher to get a student,” Stacy said.
When the couple was turned down by the one company, Stacy persevered and called other student exchange organizaitons, wanting to see if all companies were the same. Then they found Education First Foundation.
The EF Foundation is an extensive program that has been in operation more than 30 years.
“It is a nonprofit organization under guidelines of the U.S. State Department; and they monitor those guidelines very scrupulously,” said Donna Ruppert, program director and exchange student coordinator of Atlanta. “Its purpose is to enter diplomacy between countries and make the world a safer place.”
After meeting with Shawn, Ruppert had to talk to the home office of the EF Foundation in Boston before approving the couple.
“We cater to all types of families, even non-traditional ones,” Ruppert said. “Shawn being in a wheelchair and being diagnosed with quadriplegia is truly not going to affect the student that much. He doesn’t let anything get in his way and is very self-sufficient. We had no problem approving the couple after that.”
The couple chose Rothe after spending countless hours poring over student profiles that they were matched with through an intricate EF Foundation system that highlighted their similar interests.
“Our interests just clicked. He is very family-oriented, and we are too,” Shawn said.
“We have family dinners on Sundays,” Stacy said, “and we really enjoy cooking together. His parents send over recipes and we cook them together, like Weiner schnitzel.”
Among the difficulties the family encountered was the language barrier, especially American dialect and slang. “We’ve had fun teaching him those kinds of things,” Stacy said.
“He’s open to everything and willing to try something,” Shawn said. “Our interests include fishing, sports, football for the first time ever, deer hunting, and being around for his first Thanksgiving.”
Rothe said his interest in being a foreign exchange student grew from hearing about the experiences of others.
“When I was 10 years old, older friends came over, told me how much fun they had in America, so I was like yeah, I want to do that,” Rothe said. “It’s great to experience a different culture like this one. When we go hunting, you can’t do that in Germany. And I was able to be on the football team at Alcovy High for the first time and really enjoyed it. The school system is different, everything is just different.”
“Education is a lot different, when he gets back he’ll have a lot to make up, like chemistry; he’s already had three years of it and had an easy time of it here,” Stacy said.
Having a teenager in the house was also a new experience for Shawn and Stacy.
“We had to change our shopping habits to get Pizza Pockets; it’s just different to have a teenager in the house,” Stacy said.
She also said that, as a young couple — she is 28 and Shawn is 33 — they worried that a teenager might not listen to them.
“We were nervous about him following our rules, and respect, but it’s been great even if we are a little young. And on the same aspect, Paul seems a lot more grown up than most at his age,” Stacy said.
Maturity at a young age is another thing they have in common, she said.
“We never thought we were too young to host an exchange student,” said Stacy. “Shawn got injured at 19, which totally changed his life. I met him and it changed my life. So we are very mature and had to grow up fast.”
The Gastons were also pleased that Rothe adjusted well to Shawn’s disability.
“It wasn’t difficult with the wheelchair; we got to do the same stuff as always, hunt, play football, etc,” Shawn said. “Obviously, it’s slower, but Paul had no trouble or problem adjusting.”
Rothe said he already knows what he’ll miss when he returns to Germany.
“I’ll miss the Dr Pepper and the Hot Pockets, host family and friends and football,” he said.
The Gastons said they wouldn’t hesitate to recommend hosting an exchange student, as long as the host families are open about other cultures.
“I think it’s been a great experience and wouldn’t change a thing,” Shawn said. “Make sure you get someone with your same interests,” he concludes. “And if they’re from Germany, make sure you have a lot of Pizza Pockets.”