Hart family opens their home to exchange students year after year.

September 8, 2022

Hart family opens their home to exchange students year after year.

Pirate News is a presentation of Hart Public Schools in partnership with Oceana County Press.  

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor. 

HART — The Bizon family learns about different cultures and languages when hosting exchange students in their home year after year, while the young foreigners live in a warm and friendly home that provides a fun American family experience.

Lara Santos Soares, 16, of Brazil, who started her first day at Hart High School Tuesday Sept. 6 as a senior, is the fifth exchange student they have hosted. She is their first girl, which is an added bonus for mom Sara since their only child JJ is a boy. It is also a unique experience for 16-year-old JJ to finally have a sister.

“It’s weird having a sister, but I’ll get used to it,” he said.

The family started hosting in 2016 through the 4-H international exchange program. Their first two foreign students were Japanese boys, ages 12 and 13, both of whom stayed with the Bizons for separate four-week visits in 2016 and 2017.

Joao — who they call John — came from Brazil in 2019. Sadly, his visit was cut short in March due to COVID-19 international travel restrictions. He and JJ became very close during his stay, making his abrupt departure painful. “John is my big brother, and he will be the best man at my wedding some day,” said JJ. A framed picture of John hangs in the family’s living room.

“They opened the border for about a week and said, ‘Let’s get everyone home,’” Sara recalled. 

But soon another boy came to the house — Gian Luca of Germany stayed with the family for one semester in 2021. 

Lara plans to stay the entire school year and will walk with the HHS graduating class of 2023.

The teens’ visits are arranged through the FLAG program — Foreign Links Around the Globe.

The Bizons enjoy taking their US newcomers to popular destinations like Mount Rushmore, Disney World, Chicago, Detroit, the Upper Peninsula and other exciting places. They have a camper trailer and took Lara on her first camping trip ever on Labor Day weekend — just days after her arrival to the states. “I liked it a lot — I’ve never camped before,” she said. 

Dad Joe is a University of Michigan alumnus, and all of the exchange students get to attend a football game at “The Big House” every fall.

Sara was raised in a household with a foreign student environment. “When I grew up, we had exchange students in my house. We have an only child and we want to expose him to new things. We figured that we can help a student. We don’t have a big house or the fanciest house, but we can provide a good environment.”

“It’s great having another culture come into your house and you learn from them,” said Joe. “It’s great being able to teach somebody from another culture. I’ve had a very good experience with all of our exchange students — I keep in touch with them and it’s been fun.”

Lara said gaining more independence is a big plus to being an exchange student. “I learn different things every day.” She felt extremely welcome at Hart High School on her first day. “Everybody was very gentle with me.”

Having met some of JJ’s friends and other exchange students before school started made the first day at an American school more comfortable. The language barrier is a challenge, but Lara has studied English since the age of 11.

When asked what the challenges are, Sara said scheduling everyone’s activities in their busy family is at the top of the list. With two teens involved in sports and activities; a husband with a heavy workload as the Oceana County prosecutor; and her own career, she is juggling many calendars. Sara works as the zoning administrator for Benona and Claybanks townships and is the Claybanks Township assessor. Joe also coaches and officiates soccer.

A big challenge — their house has one bathroom. That can make mornings a little hectic when everyone needs to get ready at the same time. Fortunately Sara’s work schedule does not require that she hit the door daily before 8 a.m. unlike the other three household members.

Lara, who aspires to be an attorney, plans to accompany Joe to work for a day to see what it’s like to be a criminal prosecutor.

When asked what his biggest challenge is, JJ replied, “Probably right now, all my friends are going crazy over her.”

Lara is playing volleyball for the Pirates this fall, and JJ said he plans to go to her games to support her.

Is there a possibility of a romance budding between the two 16-year-old house mates? Sara said both JJ and Lara are aware of the rules, and dating is against the rules. She said that she and Joe have full confidence in both of them that they will abide by the rules. JJ said she is like a sister to him anyway.

Referring to his soccer teammates and their upcoming game, he turned to his new sister and said, “The guys were asking if you’re going to be there tomorrow.” 

When asked if Joe is going to have to be the enforcer, JJ said, “No, that’s me.”

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