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Local family FLEXes with a Russian child

Katya, a Russian foreigh exchange student, and her "parents-away-from-home," Ms. Kelly Thomas and Master Sgt. Lewis Thomas. Katya has been in the U.S. since August with the FLEX program.

Katya, a Russian foreigh exchange student, and her "parents-away-from-home," Ms. Kelly Thomas and Master Sgt. Lewis Thomas. Katya has been in the U.S. since August with the FLEX program.

HOLLOMAN AFB, N.M. -- Master Sgt. Lewis Thomas, 49th MXS/MXMAR, has brought a Russian home to live with his family.

Foreign exchange student Yekaterina Larionova, known to friends as Katya, has been with the Thomas family since Aug. 2 thanks to the Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX, program administered by the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

"We're trying to promote it," Master Sergeant Thomas said. "It is a great program ... We found out about it through a lady that my wife (Kelly) knows, Maryann Westerbur."
"We're always looking for exchange students parents," said Ms. Westerbur, local coordinator for FLEX in Alamogordo. She said it can be challenging to find enough families to participate in the program, even though the students come with their own health insurance and $125 per month spending money provided by the ECA.

"It is a really cool program," said Ms. Westerbur, who has hosted two FLEX students in her home. "Most of the kids come from less fortunate families." Ms. Westerbur said the income of many of these families averages about $150 per month. "The girl from Belarus--her mom made $150 a month. Seeing things here really opened her eyes to a better way of life. I really recommend it, especially for people who have little kids--it can show them, don't give your kids everything in life."

FLEX was established in 1992 as the centerpiece of the Newly Independent States Secondary School Initiative funded under the Freedom Support Act. It was conceived by former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley as a way to expose young people from states of the former Soviet Union to democratic concepts such as student government, debate, citizen empowerment, volunteerism, community action and free market economics. One goal of the program is to develop leadership skills in the students to help them become agents of change in their own countries. It also serves to help develop better appreciation and understanding in Americans of the world they live in.

"I really encourage people, especially if you've never been to a poor country," said Ms. Westerbur. She said the program is a wonderful learning experience; "it's better than a history book."

Unlike students visiting under privately funded exchange programs, FLEX students are on U.S. government scholarships and must undergo a rigorous competition in order to be selected. It is a merit-based open competition which gives no special consideration for candidates' financial status or connections their parents may have. Candidates are chosen based on their performance on English proficiency tests, essays and interviews.
"I won the competition," Ms. Larionova said. "I had to write essays and take a psychological test."

Sixteen-year-old Ms. Larionova is a senior (11th grade) at school in her hometown of Irkutsk, Siberia. In addition to the four subjects she is taking at Alamogordo High School, she said, she has to keep up with the 17 classes she has back home through correspondence study. Her major classes, which she would attend every day if she were in Irkutsk, are government, history and economy, with Russian and English once or twice a week. In addition to Russian and English, Ms. Larionova speaks Chinese and has recently started studying Spanish.

"I finished the college of tourism in my city, so I'm a guide in my city," Ms. Larionova said. "First it was just practicing (like an internship), then it was paid. My city is very historical and beautiful. It is near Lake Baikal."

Once Ms. Larionova graduates she plans to attend college, perhaps in London or New Zealand, and study economics. She said her mother started teaching her about trading stocks when she was 15 years old.

"I don't know exactly (what to major in), but I know it will connect with the economy," she said.
Ms. Larionova said she is enjoying the United States. "Well, I really like it," she said. "It's a different climate, different people and fun."

She does miss her home, however. "I miss my mom," she said. "I like snowboarding and stuff like that, so I miss my cold weather."

"We told her that the weather here was dry and warm," said Kelly Thomas, Katya's mom-away-from-home. "And the first two months she was here it rained."

Ms. Larionova said she also misses rock climbing and other extreme sports. FLEX students are not allowed to practice extreme sports during their stay in the United States. They are also not allowed to drive a car or enroll in driver's education classes for insurance reasons.

FLEX students are strongly encouraged to participate in volunteerism and community projects. They are expected to be both cultural teachers and students while in the United States, and once they return to their home countries they are expected to be ambassadors from the United States who teach their people about American life. They are subject to a two-year home residency requirement, which means they must reside in their home country for two years cumulatively once they complete their year of school in the United States.

World Link, the placement organization which facilitated Ms. Larionova's visit, requires students to join Future Farmers of America to develop leadership skills as well as be involved in at least 30 hours of community service or volunteer work during their exchange year. Ms. Larionova is a member of the FFA as well as the drama club at AHS. She is also the vice president of the local Boy Scouts of America's Venturing Club.

"I believe in this program and I believe in the kids," said Ms. Westerbur. "It's the best experience for the kids and the people (host families) who do it. It will totally change their life. It doesn't ask for a lot. All school supplies are reimbursed; all medical expenses are reimbursed."

Ms. Westerbur said it is easy to become a host parent for a FLEX student, even for a single person. She said the program rarely turns down anyone who is interested unless there is a concern, such as a single person who is never at home.

"They give me a call, and I go to their house and check out where they live--we don't want somebody who lives in their car or anything," she said. "We do a background check. It's nothing too involved, just to make sure they aren't a child molester."

Those interested in becoming host parents for FLEX students are urged to contact Maryann Westerbur at (505) 437-4447 or wesfamily@msn.com, preferably by the end of May for those interested in hosting a student for the 2007-08 school year. Information is also available on the World Link Web site, www.worldlinkinc.org.