Judy Engel never dreamed she would be a mom to so many.
“We always said we were stopping with three kids,” Judy Engel said. “Then, we added 57 more ... from 23 different countries.”
Engel and her husband, Phil, started hosting international students in their home in Portage in 1997 through a short-term exchange program with the Lions Club. In this program, international students would come from and stay with a host family for six weeks at a time to experience American culture from the inside.
Within a few years, Engel was coordinating the exchange program for Northwest Indiana.
Then, Francisco changed their lives. Two days before he left Brazil to study in America, his host family backed out. Judy and Phil agreed to fill in on a temporary emergency basis. He moved out eight years later.
“A few days after he arrived, we knew God wanted him to live with us,” Judy said.
Francisco finished his senior year of high school in Northwest Indiana. He continued living with the Engels while earning a bachelor's degree in business from Purdue North Central and a master's degree in organizational leadership from Olivet Nazarene University.
After hosting Francisco, the Engels realized that having an extra kid in the house is not actually much inconvenience. Their birth children went to the same schools and did most of the same activities as the visiting students, so they began hosting two or three international kids in their home each year.
Most international students want to earn a high school diploma from an American school so that they will be prepared to enter an American university. The students come from all over the world to study in American high schools for three or four years, usually living with one family for the whole time.
Hosting international students is a richly rewarding experience both for the family and for the kids, Engel said. Everyone learns more about other countries and gains a different cultural experience. No matter what happens, they amass an unlimited supply of amusing stories.
Family events create collision courses for misunderstandings. When Geraldine, a meek young student from France, went with the Engels to a family reunion, one family member kept speaking louder and louder, as if that would help Geraldine overcome her language limitations. Finally, shy little Geraldine shot back, “I’m French, not deaf!”
Other times, the incoming students have unreasonably high expectations. “One kid thought it was all going to be 'Desperate Housewives' or 'Gossip Girl,'” Judy said. “We had to say, ‘Sorry kid. This ain’t Hollywood!’”
The Engel’s extreme hospitality surprises even themselves at times.
“I look back at pictures of when we had lots of kids in the house, and I think, ‘How crazy was I? What was I thinking?’” Judy bursts out with an explosion of laughter. “No wonder people thought I was nuts! But I was a stay-at-home mom with lots of youthful energy.”
These days, Judy mostly coordinates with other host families through an organization called DM Discoveries. Last school year, she coordinated 18 placements in Northwest Indiana, and she has 15 scheduled so far for the 2013-14 school year.
Most of the kids who have lived with the Engels still call her Mom. They stay in contact via email, Facebook, phone calls and the occasional visit. A few weeks ago, Francisco surprised the Engels by returning for the wedding of one of the Engels’ daughters.