AFS Volunteer Paula McElroy with her husband, daughter (right) and two former AFS host daughters (left) at Disney World.

Meet Paula McElroy, of Silverwood Michigan. She’s a high school teacher, history buff, wife and parent who has made cultural exchange an essential part of her daily life. Since 2002, she has dedicated countless hours of service to AFS as a volunteer and host parent. Here is her AFS story:

How did you learn about AFS and what prompted you to get involved?

My husband and I learned about AFS by becoming a host family. We had a great hosting experience, and also enjoyed volunteering at orientations during that year. The following year we adopted our daughter, Katie, from Russia, so we decided to take a few years off to focus on her adjustment. But when she entered the 4th grade, we felt the time was right to continue hosting and volunteering with AFS and have done so every year since.

What keeps you coming back to volunteer each year?

I think that student exchanges are important to our communities, our schools, and our nation. I firmly believe that by bringing cross-cultural exposure to my community, I am expanding my own horizons, as well as helping my students and community members get to know the world around them better. I believe this makes us better citizen of the United States and the world. I also love that my work here in the US makes it possible for exchange students from other countries to change their own worldview and impact their local communities when they return home.

I also volunteer with AFS because I am convinced that AFS has the best quality exchange programs out there. It has the best organizational structure and the best support system for students, host families and host communities.

What’s a typical volunteer ‘shift’ like for you?

Well, since I am a host mother, too, my “shift” never ends! But in my official volunteer roles for AFS, I typically do whatever needs to be done when the time comes. I provide student support during the evenings and on weekends. In between, I try to attend my local AFS Area Team meetings, and my husband and I design and host student orientations. I would not be able to do all of this without my husband, who is also a host parent and very active volunteer. We really share the responsibilities of our local chapter.

What have you learned or how have you been personally impacted by your experience with AFS?

I have learned that our world is a much smaller place than I originally thought, that the love of a family is universal, and that teenagers are “teenagers” no matter where they are from. I have also learned how much I am capable of as a host mother and a volunteer. Personally, I have developed lifelong relationships with my exchange daughters and quality friendships with my fellow AFS host families, volunteers and local staff.

What the best or funniest thing that’s happened to you while volunteering with AFS?

I don’t think I can come up with one “best thing” since most of my experiences have been in the “best” category. However, I truly enjoy seeing how the students grow and mature. I love having my exchange daughters come home for a visit and seeing how they have developed. I try to stay in close contact with all of them to hear how they are doing and pray for them when they or their home countries are struggling.

What do you want to say to people who might be interested in volunteering with AFS?

This is not something you want volunteer for without being passionate about it. It involves long hours and will pull on every heartstring you have. However, the pay-offs are huge and life changing. You will be changed through this experience, as will your family and community. If you are looking to bring about positive change in your community and beyond, this is the opportunity for you.

What are some things AFS volunteers and staff don’t know about you?

Well, let’s see, I am a high school science and history teacher. My husband and I have hosted 12 exchange students from: Hungry, Kazakhstan, Germany, Norway, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Armenia, Denmark and Gaza. We will be hosting a YES student from the Philippines next year and are very excited about this. I have an MA in Early American and Medieval History from Oakland University, an MS in Applied Science Education from Michigan Technological University, and I have researched and written a history of Women who followed the British Army during the Colonial Wars.