Walking into a stranger’s home for the first time can be an uncomfortable experience. There are all kinds of awkward social situations that can come up and you generally have to be on your best behaviour.
Now imagine living this every day for three months, and add the fact that you’re thousands of kilometres from home.
This is what every new Canada World Youth volunteer experiences when they walk into their host family’s house.
It was no different for Helena Tetteh from Accra, Ghana, West Africa.
“I had never even stayed in like my auntie’s house before. I was like, ‘Who am I going to live with?’” said the 20-year-old.
Tetteh is a volunteer with the Canada World Youth (CWY) program, a not-for-profit organization that acts as a youth cultural exchange program for young Canadians.
Groups of eight young Canadians are paired with a mirror group from a partner country, in this case Ghana, and the youth volunteer for three months in Canada and three months in the partner nation.
While they work for various community organizations, the groups live with host families. They are encouraged to live as part of the family and participate in appropriate family activities.
But moving into a stranger’s house for three months can a daunting experience, something Tetteh and her Canadian counterpart have now experienced first hand.
“At first thinking about it, I thought it was going to be really awkward and super uncomfortable the whole time,” said counterpart Amanda Dick, 20, from Vancouver B.C.
That first day in their new home was a new and uncomfortable experience for both women.
“I was a little bit awkward but I think I’m just an awkward person. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know how they were going to react to having us there,” said Dick.
“I couldn’t eat. I’m a very shy person ... especially at the dining table. At home we don’t sit to eat together, so I had to look around” and see what everybody else was doing, said Tetteh.
When Dick and Tetteh arrived in St. John’s in September they were matched to live with Kim MacPherson, who works for the province, and her husband, Daryl Parsons, a security officer. The family has no children and one cat.
This is their second year as “host parents,” and MacPherson is past CWY group leader. They decided to host volunteers because they’re relatively new to the city and were looking to meet people. MacPherson said it was a nostalgic move for her.
“I kind of missed being involved in the program,” she said. “We also wanted to get more involved in the community and we thought this would be a good way to do that.”
“And we did,” interjected MacPherson.
“Through the program we did find out about where different community centres are, where the recreation facilities are, where the soccer fields are. ... I wouldn’t have known any of that stuff about this community,” she said.
Last year was such a success that they decided to host volunteers again. And there are advantages to having a couple of young people in the house, she added.
“It made us better home keepers. Like making proper meals instead of eating on the fly. I mean we have a full meal, a family dinner every night. It’s the biggest thing we do as a family is have a meal,” she said.
For the two volunteers the process of integrating into a new family has been a challenge, but it’s also been a rewarding experience.
“Kim and Daryl have done a really good job of making this feel like home for the three months that I’m here,” said Dick.
Their two hosts laid down some ground rules on the first day and the girls have managed to work around those, she said. The two volunteers help by washing dishes, doing the occasional cleaning and generally trying to stay tidy.
Dick said the experience of living in someone else’s house has made her a neater person.
She’d never made her bed regularly until she started living with her host family, she said.
“I’ll definitely be a lot neater. I’m a very messy person and I’ve had to be neat here. If my mom saw how I was living right now she would say, ‘Oh my God. Why can’t you do this at home?’” she said.
Tetteh, meanwhile, has found herself cleaning a lot while living in St. John’s.
There’s more dust in Ghana, she said, so as part of your morning routine you help dust the home.
You don’t have to do that in Canada, so she feels lazy sometimes, she said.
“Sometimes I just have to clean the room or just find work to do,” she said. Not that MacPherson and Parsons mind at all.
More information on CWY can be found online at canadaworldyouth.cwy-jcm.com.