In a world filled with technological advancements and instant connectivity, it's easy to forget the power of simple, genuine human connections. The heartwarming stories of Melinda Krause and Claudia Werner Grassy remind us that true friendship can transcend time, distance, and cultural barriers. Their tale of a summer exchange program in the mid-1980s has not only shaped their lives but has also extended its legacy to the next generation.
In the summer of 1985, as a 16 year-old girl from Denver, Colorado, I boarded a PanAm flight excited for my summer cultural experience to take flight yet not having any idea how my life was about to change forever. As I landed in Germany, my new host family greeted me at my gate. I remember meeting Oma and Opa (Claudia’s grandparents that she lived with) and thinking they stepped out of a German fairy tale.
I remember riding in their red Golf car as they shared bread with me while my new host sister, Claudia, taught me my first German words, “Ich bin Melinda.” While on this drive, the buildings from hundreds of years ago, the different types of cars, the street and building signs that I could not read completely captivated me since this was my first experience out of my home state of Colorado. Upon arriving at their home, in a tiny village called Hitzaker, everything around me was completely different and totally foreign, including the language. I did not speak any German, Oma and Opa did not speak any English and very few people in the town spoke English. Claudia was one of the very few people I could communicate with. I was young and naive, but I knew this summer would be an adventure unlike any I had ever had so I welcomed the changes and embraced the differences around me.
Over our two months together, Claudia and I developed a strong connection and friendship. We shared many laughs, talked for all hours of the night and soon discovered teenage girls do similar things, like hanging out at the pool with friends, listening to music and watching movies. Despite coming from different worlds, we found many common interests and had a lot of fun together. We formed a strong bond over a very short time and we were dreading the end of summer when we would no longer be together. We decided that this time could not be over and Claudia had to come live with me and my family.
After our heart wrenching departure, there was no email, social media or text messages so we wrote many letters back and forth until the end of summer in 1986 when Claudia arrived in Denver to live with us and attend high school with me. We went to school together every day. We did not have any classes together but we had many of the same friends and we went on a “double date” to Homecoming. At times, things were difficult. Adjusting to a new culture, new rules, a new school, a new language and a completely different family life can be very challenging. Despite these challenges, our hearts knew our friendship was real and true. As our time together was coming to a close, Claudia and I took a little “senior trip” together to the mountains. This time for just the two of us cemented our time together.
Spending time in each other’s country, learning about our different cultures and our different family lives created a shared understanding that fostered growth and a unique connection that neither one of us has ever experienced with others. Our shared experiences created a unique connection and a lifelong bond. We always said and felt that we were not just friends but we were truly sisters. We promised that we would always be in touch and someday our kids would know each other.
As we became adults and began our lives, we continued to stay in touch through letters. We never went long without writing a letter and keeping each other updated on our lives. We wrote about our careers, the fun adventures we were having, the people we were dating and the heartaches we endured. In 2002, as a single mom, Claudia invited both me and my son to attend her wedding to Jurgen and of course we went. My heart was full as I watched my young son interact with my German sister and her new husband. Our family was expanding.
A year later, when I married my husband, Stuart; Claudia and Jurgen came to our wedding. From 2004-2007 our families continued to grow as we each shared the news of our pregnancies and the birth of our children. We welcomed our son, Nathan in 2004. Claudia and Jurgen welcomed twin girls, Neele and Jette in 2005 and we welcomed our third son, Jacob in 2007. In 2009, we went to Germany to visit and we met Claudia and Jurgen’s twin girls, Neele and Jette, who at the time were 3 years old. My husband saw the small village of Hitzaker, where Claudia and I first met and spent the summer together. We met again in Mallorca in 2012 to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Sisters, still sharing our lives and now our families.
Our promise to each other that our kids would know each other some day really seemed to come true when Neele decided that she wanted to come to the US to stay with us to experience American culture, American high school and way of life. We were beyond excited to welcome her into her home. When Covid hit, our dreams were crushed as all travel was canceled. Our school district did not allow exchange students during the 2020-2021 school year and the district maintained that decision for the 2021-2022 school year. It really felt like Neele’s dream and our promise from so long ago was not going to happen. In the summer of 2022, Neele and her father came for a visit. Jurgen stayed for a very short visit and Neele stayed for the summer, just like my exchange time in Germany. Finally our families were together. Nathan and Jacob had fun introducing Neele to their friends and showing her around the high school. They took her to Red Rocks and a place most girls love, an American mall. Now, because of social media our kids were constantly in touch. They had a “streak of snaps,” which this letter-writing mom doesn’t totally understand. Finally in April of 2023, we received the official word that Neele would be spending a year with our family. On August 8th, when Neele’s plane finally landed in Denver, it all seemed so surreal, that almost 40 years later, my German sister and I were finally sharing our families. A connection we formed from our culture exchange now extends to the next generation.
When I was a teenager back in the mid 80s I lived in a very small village (Hitzacker) near Hamburg, Germany. I dreamed of America, a land so far away, so different. At that time we had no internet, no social media, no mobile phones etc. so it was very difficult to get started.
My teacher at our little school in Hitzacker told me about exchange programs. I found the address of an exchange program in Hamburg in our telephone book and I wrote them a letter. That's how everything started.
First of all, we welcomed Melinda in the summer of 1985 at our home in Germany. That experience convinced me to go to the USA one year later and today I must say that this exchange year changed my life. I was a girl from a small town, 17 years old and not very independent when I arrived.
Leaving my home, my family and friends in Germany helped me a lot to find my way in the world. It wasn't always easy to be away in a different country with so many other rules but it made me so much stronger. I learned to adjust and trust in my abilities and it led to a lifelong friendship with my American host-sister Melinda. I am very grateful for this gift.
We always stayed in contact over all these years and accompanied all phases of life (starting our jobs, getting married, having children etc..) Today I can only appeal to young people to go overseas. It is a wonderful journey which you will never forget and it opens your horizon for your whole life.
I am happy that my daughter (Neele) is an STS-exchange student right now and that she stays with Melinda´s wonderful family in Colorado.
Each year, exchange students arrive to the USA, ready to jump right into life at American high schools. Whether they’re trying something new or continuing a passion, they can’t wait to make new friends and be part of their school community. For Inigo from Spain, he found a new way to enjoy his love of music. As a musician back in Spain, he had plenty of experience playing the saxophone. But upon arriving to the USA, he found a new way to play with his high school marching band. He shares how he prepared for his exchange year, and how his first few weeks in the USA have been.Read More
Each year, over 30,000 American families open their doors to exchange students, and each family has their own “why.” When you open your heart and home to a young person, you may be thinking about all the things you have to give them – a second family, a chance to live life as a typical American teenager, new experiences. But you’ll soon learn that you also have so much to gain. Host mom Bobbi shares how hosting over the years has given her family the gift of a new culture and an international family.Read More
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In a world filled with technological advancements and instant connectivity, it’s easy to forget the power of simple, genuine human connections. The heartwarming stories of Melinda Krause and Claudia Werner Grassy remind us that true friendship can transcend time, distance, and cultural barriers. Their tale of a summer exchange program in the mid-1980s has not only shaped their lives but has also extended its legacy to the next generation.Read More
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