Martha Michael | Lessons from a Global ‘Family’

While some of us would describe Patty Stephenson using words like “dedicated” and “self-sacrificing,” there are other people in her life who would use words like “tres approfondie” or “wusi fuwu.”

A retired French teacher from Saugus High School, Patty has “family members” all over the world, thanks to a lifetime of interest in academic foreign exchange programs. Last fall, she and her husband, Jenk, flew to Chicago to visit her “German sister,” Margit, who was there on vacation.

“It had been 50 years since we were sisters,” she said. 

And when the Stephensons go to China, they stop in to visit so many “family members,” she said it feels like they’re eating round-the-clock. 

Patty is a living advertisement for the bonds that form when people from different places on the globe meet and spend time under one roof. Not only has she continued to create new relationships with individuals abroad, but also the connections have lasted for generations. 

When Patty’s kids were young, the family hosted a Japanese exchange student and their daughter Beth, age 5 at the time, brought “Misako” to school for show-and-tell, to everyone’s amusement. Misako made a second visit to the Stephenson’s, and 23 years later Patty and Jenk would see her again – when they took a trip to Japan. It just so happens that this week, the Stephensons hosted Misako’s daughter, Keiko!

These days, when Beth travels to Europe, she stays with the children of Patty’s “French sisters,” and the Stephensons’ son, Marc, has a special connection with the second and third generation of a Finnish exchange student from the past. 

“In high school I had a friend from Finland and we stayed friends,” Patty explained. “Later, he (Bosse) sent two of his daughters to stay with us. One had a baby and she asked our son to be the baby’s godfather.”

Suffice it to say, Patty has never kept the benefits of the foreign exchange experience to herself. She shares it with everyone, which is how the Chinese exchange program at Saugus High School began. For years, she tried to get the school to agree to a short-term exchange with a French school, but was told there was too much liability. 

In 2004, when then Hart District Superintendent Robert C. Lee went on a junket to China, he returned and sought a campus to begin setting the groundwork for an exchange program. Saugus’ principal at the time, Bill Bolde, agreed, and with French teacher Patty Stephenson, got the documentation completed. The two traveled to China in the spring of 2005 and signed a “memoranda of understanding” and took the first group of local students and a teacher that fall. 

In the last 14 years, more than 200 foreign students have come to Santa Clarita and more than 150 local students have gone overseas through the program. And an additional 21 students and four adults will travel to Xi’an this June. 

In the beginning, some community sponsors helped them with costs (they require the program to be open to any Saugus High student who wants to go, regardless of their ability to pay). Many local teens, even a homeless student, have been able to participate because of this strategy. 

In the first few years, either Patty or Bill Bolde supported the cause with their own money – and that doesn’t begin to describe the tremendous number of volunteer hours they contributed.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” Patty said, which she knows firsthand, having gone to study in France while in high school, and returning to university there. “It changes the way kids and adults see things. Some of our American kids have never left the country, never left the state.”

The program for Saugus students in China includes classes in language, the country’s history and culture, and such activities as paper cutting, Kung Fu, sewing, mask-making, calligraphy and cooking.  

“One of the best benefits of working with the exchange was meeting so many exceptional families in our community,” she said. “They have incredibly open hearts and are always ready to provide for our exchange students.” 

You can see a family bond between local kids and host families, who rally in support of the program. Patty and Bill Bolde created a nonprofit to raise money for foreign exchange scholarships and the entire board is made up of former host families. Santa Clarita International Exchange was formed after Patty’s retirement in 2012, and it has covered costs so more kids have been able to participate.

One of the program’s greatest needs, however, is new leadership, as Patty would like to pass the torch. 

“We need someone on campus, (as well as) continued district support,” she said. “The biggest issue in running the exchange program (other than funding) is finding host families. It was a lot easier when I was teaching.”

Patty Stephenson continues to fit the definition of “supportive” to the amazement of exchange program families. But the search is on for new leaders and eager volunteers, so she can finally say “au revoir” and “zaijian” to the rigors of running the program. 

Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.

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