WALLA WALLA -- Foreign exchange students typically spend a year locally, attending school, and getting to know people, in an effort to gain a better understanding of local customs and the U.S. way of life.
So when Walla Walla High School's six exchange students participated in a fundraising car wash recently, they found the opportunity to give back to their community, while sharing a bit about their own backgrounds and cultures.
This week, the six students -- representing Norway, China, Thailand, France, Indonesia and Egypt -- visited area elementary schools. The students read books in classrooms that shed light on cultures around the world. The visits also presented the opportunity to answer questions about their own birth country.
Linnea Keatts, a longtime volunteer with AFS International, and a current host mother, said the students raised $250 through a fundraising car wash earlier this year.
"It was right after they arrived," Keatts said. "It was kind of a bonding thing, too, to get to know each other."
The idea soon grew to use the money to buy books for local children.
In the end, program coordinators and the students bought multicultural books to donate to local schools. The students agreed to read the books to the children, and then donate the books to each class.
"They chose all kinds of books that have to do with children around the world, at different reading levels," Keatts said.
The exchange students, who live with host families, visited the classrooms of host sisters and brothers, and also the classes of a couple of host moms who teach in the Walla Walla Public Schools.
Preschool students at Blue Ridge, and kindergarten students at Prospect Point, got to hear and keep a copy of "Everybody Eats Lunch," a simple board book that shows how five different youths around the world eat lunch. As an added bonus, the six exchange students produced their own pages detailing what they eat for lunch in their home country, and included them with the books.
Older children heard the young readers version of "Three Cups of Tea," about a man's journey to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The exchange students will have visited 10 classrooms by the time they are done. They have already read to children in two Head Start preschool classes, three kindergarten classes at Prospect Point, second- and third-grade students at Green Park, and have a visit to second-graders at Berney scheduled Friday.
They'll conclude with two classroom visits at Sharpstein after the Thanksgiving break.
Because the books being donated each focused on various cultures, Keatts said it was a clear learning opportunity.
"Every classroom has a map, or a globe. Some of the books had maps in them too, which really helped. It made it more alive," she said.
Keatts said she was particularly excited about the change to introduce local children to the teens.
"They come here and learn a lot about us, but we need to learn something about them," she said. And the younger siblings are always proud to see their big "sister" or "brother" visit their school.
"They think it's so cool that their big brother or sister comes to class," Keatts said.
Exchange students typically arrive in mid-August, and live locally with a host family until the end of June. Two additional students live in Waitsburg, with those students planning to do their own version of the book project. And there are already plans to do coordinate another book project with future students.
Although the teens still have a few more classes to visit, Keatts said the program was an apparent success.
"We think it has met its goal," she said. "They just got down on the floor, and the little kids loved it."