Traverse City Record-Eagle

Feature Columnists

April 13, 2014

Marta Hepler Drahos: Expanding family circle with exchange student

A family is a circle of people who love you.

Just ask widower Owen Cook and his exchange students from all over the world.

Cook’s wife died in 2003, leaving their home too quiet. So in 2004 Cook decided to take in an exchange student, something the couple had always wanted to do. Instead he got two.

Since then the retired nurse has taken in 16 more students from places like Japan and Germany, South Korea and Norway, Thailand and Azerbaijan. Now 79, he sees no reason to stop.

Exchange students liven up the house, says Cook, who welcomes their friends, hosts birthday parties, and cooks rice in a special electric cooker since rice is a staple of many world diets. His small Traverse City home is decorated with art and artifacts from exotic places, all from the grateful teens.

Cook prepares for his students each year by selecting brochures from the tourism bureau that will introduce them to the area and all it offers. He mails them a schedule of classes at their new school. He trolls the ethnic food aisles at local grocery stores for spices, like habanero chili sauce, that will ease their transition to American food.

Recent back surgery temporarily slowed Cook down. But both his current exchange students are from countries that revere elders, so the students are respectful, even solicitous, of his health. They take their turns cooking and cleaning, stand (unnecessarily) on either side of him on slippery sidewalks.

Living with Cook is like having another grandfather, says one, who laments losing one of her own when she was in the third grade.

Single and older hosts are welcome through most student exchange programs. Just as there’s no typical American “family” anymore, there’s no typical host family, according to local exchange program representative Olave Russell.

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