Clarice and Larry Loehr, Villa Ridge, gave birth to one boy and three girls, but if you ask them how many children they have, they will probably say a few dozen, counting nearly 35 foreign exchange students they have hosted since the late 1980s.
With their current “exchange son,” Isma Lampinen, from Finland, the Loehrs have come full circle in their service. Isma is the son of the first exchange daughter they hosted back in 1986-’87, when they lived in Ballwin.
She attended Lafayette High School. Isma is attending Pacific High School.
The Loehrs, who have traveled around the world visiting their many “exhange sons and daughters” and their families, said it was their own third born, Sharon, who suggested to them the idea of being host parents.
She brought it up at the dinner table after hearing a presentation on it at school, they said. The Loehrs and their three other children were all in agreement that it sounded like a good idea for their family, so the next day, Clarice contacted the counselor at Lafayette to gather more information.
There are several organizations that run exchange student programs, and the counselor suggested YFU, Youth For Understanding.
The Loehrs filled out the application and were assigned a female student, who ended up only staying with them for six weeks before leaving. She was having too much trouble adjusting, the Loehrs explained.
Clarice was ready to let the idea end there, feeling guilty that she was to blame for the first student’s troubles, but the rest of the family convinced her to let them try again.
The following school year they were assigned Pauliina from Finland. She was the same age and grade as their daughter, Sharon, and they even shared a bedroom.
Clarice laughs remembering moments like when she took Sharon and Pauliina shopping for prom dresses and how by the end of the school year, Pauliina, who had never held or fed a baby before she came to live with the Loehrs, was helping feed bottles to the babies Clarice cared for in her home.
When the school year was over, the Loehrs learned the hard way how much Pauliina had become one of the family. Seeing her off at the airport was deeply emotional for everyone.
Just thinking about that day now, 30 years later, was enough to make Larry choke up. Clarice explained why.
“Every time we talk about it, we choke up, because it’s like a death,” she said. “That first one, Pauliina, took us a while to get over.”
“A piece of your heart goes home with them,” said Larry.
The Loehrs signed up to host another student the following school year, and they have done so every year afterward that they could — taking a break only when they were caring for their aging parents.
“We don’t drink and we don’t smoke, but we are addicted — to teenagers and exchance students,” Clarice remarked. “We love the laughter they bring into our home, what we can teach them about our country, and what we learn from them about their country.”
Over the last 30 years, the Loehrs have hosted students from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Turkmanistan, Macedonia, Brazil and Mexico. In turn, they have visited most of those countries, and their exchange families have taken them on side trips to Italy and France, Estonia and Poland.
Two of their exchange sons and daughters now live in the United States, and one (from Turkmanistan) serves in the U.S. military.
More Than Students
The Loehrs noted that when they began serving as host parents, they always introduced the students to others as their “exchange student.” But they later learned that description made the students feel sort of like an outsider; they preferred to be called the Loehrs’ “exchange son or daughter.”
The couple agreed that was more fitting and reflective of how they see them — not as guests, but as family members.
“We love these kids,” Clarice remarked.
The Loehrs moved to Villa Ridge from Ballwin in 2004. A couple years after that, Clarice’s father moved in with them while they cared for him.
After he died a few years later, Clarice was having a hard time, and it was the addition of a new “exchange daughter,” Jacque from Germany, that helped her overcome the mourning.
“She brought my heart back” said Clarice.
Two years ago the Loehrs were visiting Pauliina in Finland, and were “intrigued” by her second son, Isma. That visit laid the groundwork for his “exchange” year with them through Counsel for Educational Travel USA.
Isma visited the Loehrs last year, staying for three weeks so they could get to know each other better and do some traveling. This year they plan to take him to Florida, as they have done with all of their exchange sons and daugters.
Isma is the only second generation exchange son or daughter that they’ve hosted, and he will probably be their last.
Now in their 70s, the Loehrs are ready to start slowing down.
‘Treat Them Like Our Own Kids’
Over the last 30 years, the Loehrs have hosted 24 exchange sons and daughters who lived with them for a school year, plus another 10 or more who stayed with them for a time.
In addition to being host parents, the Loehrs also worked for the exchange student programs as area representatives. That meant they helped place students with the right host families and made monthly reports about how those pairings were going.
There are occasions when the match doesn’t work out right, and the Loehrs — who had experienced that themselves with one or two students — learned what the potential pitfalls are.
The Loehrs said it helps by getting to know your exchange son or daughter right away even before they arrive. They used to do that through letters, said Clarice, but today they use Skype and social media.
“The minute we knew we were approved for Jacque, we went on Facebook and said, ‘Friend us!’ So she was ready,” Clarice said.
“And once they’re here, you start picking up on their personality, and we just treat them like our own kids,” said Larry.
The Loehrs smiled thinking how far they have come since they were children themselves, writing to pen pals around the world and very often never hearing back from them.
Today they have “sons and daughters” in countries all over the world and at home have a curio cabinet filled with mementos and specialty items and walls covered with photos, plates and other hangings.
‘Best Thing We Ever Did’
The Loehrs say they have gotten to see and experience things solely because of the families they’ve met in the exchange program. On a visit to Norway, one of their families took them to Lillehammer the summer before the Winter Olympics were there. And their Swiss family took them on a trip to Italy that dazzled them in its variety.
“They woke us up one morning, told us to dress in layers,” said Larry. “They had rented a van, and we went up in the mountains. First it was raining, then it was snowing. At the top, it was so cold, we had to go get hot chocolate . . . in summer. Then they took us down to the southern part of Switzerland before we got into Italy, and there was palm trees. It was so hot we had to strip down to shorts.”
It was a memorable experience made even more so because they could share it with “family.” It was the same kind of experience that they try to give to the “exchange sons and daughters” when they come to live with them for a year in America.
“We try to give back to them what we think they will enjoy about our country, and when we go over there, their parents turn right around and do the same thing for us,” said Clarice.
“One of our German daughters knew my great-grandfather came from Braunschweig, Germany . . . The year she got married, we went over there, she paid for the trip, and then took us down to Braunschweig, Germany,” said Larry.
“We have been so blessed! It has been the best thing we ever did,” he remarked.