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Kenai couple opens their home to the world

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2001

While some adults find teen-agers difficult to live with, others enjoy the company of youthful enthusiasm. But even the fondest parent might think twice about bringing an extra kid home to stay.

Imagine bringing home a dozen.

Over a span of four decades, Kenai residents Charles "Chuck" and Nancy Cranston have opened their home and served as host parents for eight foreign exchange students, three young men from the Bush and one relative from out of state.

"It keeps us in contact with the young people," Chuck said. "You keep a little more youthful outlook."

 

Patrick Davids from South Africa and Jason Evans from Tyonek on prom night in 1986;

Photos courtesy of the Cranston family

Nancy agreed.

"We enjoy having them. We have friends all over the world," she said.

She gestured toward her husband.

"The years we didn't have a kid around the house, he would complain," she said.

 

A family portrait in 1992 with son Mark Cranston, son-in-law Gary Stroh, daughter Kelli Cranston Stroh, "adopted" son Patrick Davids (then a UAF student) and Chuck and Nancy.

Photos courtesy of the Cranston family

Friends from the ski slopes

It all began because Chuck loves to ski.

Back in the 1950s, he was in the military and stationed in Europe. During furloughs, he headed for the Alps. It proved a good way to meet people.

He found what he recalled as "a second home" with an Austrian couple and their young children. When it was time for him to return stateside, he invited them to send their children to the United States to visit when they got old enough.

 

Kelli and Gary Stroh, Nancy and Chuck, Charlie Gallahorn and Anna Carlmark.

Photos courtesy of the Cranston family

Years passed. He met and married Nancy, and in 1963 the newlyweds were living in Fortuna, Calif., where Chuck had a job in a law office.

One day, out of the blue, they got a telegram from the Austrian couple telling them when to pick up their son, Mickey Furtner, from the airport. He stayed several months.

The next year, Chuck's Swedish friends wanted to send over their teen-age son. The Cranstons had a baby on the way, but they invited Karl Carlmark anyway.

"I was a high school mom with a baby," Nancy said. "I had no idea how to take care of a teen-ager."

 

The Cranstons with Charlie Gallahorn, from Kotzebue, during a 1990 Kenai Central High School choir trip to Europe.

Photos courtesy of the Cranston family

For a decade, they took a break from hosting foreign guests to raise their own two children, Kelli and Mark.

However, through all the life changes, they kept in touch with their European friends. The Furtners paid for the whole family to make a ski trip to see them. And when they visited Karl, his wife and his children in Sweden, they all started talking about extending the ties to a second generation.

In 1968, the Cranstons moved to Alaska, and in 1977 they moved into the house they still occupy south of Kenai. Chuck served for years as a judge in Kenai until his retirement in 1996, and Nancy worked part-time as a school library clerk.

A niece from Colorado came to live with them for two years. When their own children grew up, they started filling the empty bedrooms with borrowed teen-agers.

Through their involvement with the Soldotna United Methodist Church, they ended up boarding Jason Evans, a student from Tyonek, for two years.

Meanwhile, a district attorney took Chuck and Nancy to a dinner sponsored by AFS -- the world's largest and oldest international exchange organization for high school students. It matched up perfectly with their interests, they started attending meetings and soon they were on the list of host families.

"We had sort of gotten into the swing of things," Chuck said.

Changing lives

half a world away

In 1986, even before Evans left, the Cranston's first AFS student arrived.

Hosting through a program is a different experience from inviting family friends in. Although students and families are screened for compatibility and have the right of final approval, they do not know each other in advance. So the arrangement is a bit of a "blind date."

AFS sent the Cranstons a boy from South Africa named Patrick Davids. Those were tough times in his home country, with apartheid segregation at its most oppressive and civil unrest sweeping the nation. He carried the dual burdens of being born "colored," according to that country's stringent race classifications, and from a poor family.

Davids recalled that he and his friends had speculated about what life could be in an integrated nation such as the United States.

"We didn't understand what freedom was," he said.

He also was interested in wildlife, so when he had a chance to sign up with AFS he requested to go not only to the United States but specifically to Alaska.

Living with Cranstons and attending Kenai Central High School revolutionized his life.

Nancy recalled how much America impressed him and how he used to have nightmares about apartheid.

"I think he was surprised at how accepting the white people were of him," she said.

Davids fell in love with Alaska.

In the years that followed, the Cranstons paid for his ticket to come back from Africa and helped him enroll in the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Now, Davids lives in Anchorage, has a son of his own and is a school teacher. With his blood relatives on the far side of the world, he considers the Cranstons to be his closest family.

"For me, they are my parents," he said.

Marisol Tapia, another host mother, said she and her husband met the Cranstons and Davids through AFS activities.

"We could not believe what a loving relationship they have after all these years," she said.

Ups and downs of hosting

After hitting it off so well with Davids, the Cranstons offered to host another AFS student.

However, the second time did not work out as well. Danish student Stephan Stephansen hailed from the metropolis of Copenhagen and found Kenai too rural for his liking. He transferred to another state.

"This life was pretty slow for him," Nancy said.

Alaska has been a rude shock to many foreign exchange students. Often their preconceptions of the United States are based on Hollywood media images, and they imagine Alaska as a frozen land of igloos and polar bears.

The Cranstons cure for that culture shock has been to teach the kids to ski.

"None of them really wanted to come to Alaska," Nancy said, "but once they got here, they had a great time."

Following Stephansen, the Cranstons went back to old friends and hosted Anna Carlmark, the child of their earlier exchange student, Karl -- and their own god-daughter.

During her year in Kenai, they became embroiled in the most poignant incident in their decades as host parents.

One day they received an emergency message: Karl had been killed in an auto accident in Sweden. Chuck and Nancy had the sad task of telling Anna of her father's death and supporting the family long-distance through the grieving process.

Alaskans benefited from the Cranstons' hospitality, too.

A friend in Kotzebue asked if they would take in a youth from the village whose own family was having problems. Charlie Gallahorn ended up living with them for four years and graduated from KCHS.

"He was a good kid," Nancy said.

Subsequently, Charlie's younger brother, Willie, spent two years with the Cranstons.

In 1990, Charlie went on the school choir trip to Europe. The Cranstons came along as chaperones.

As always, they accumulated young friends. They struck up an enduring correspondence with a Hungarian girl named Aniko Eisenkramer they met during the tour.

"Chuck said in a letter, 'Would you like to come over here and go to school for a year?'" Nancy said.

"And she took us up on it."

Such informal exchanges are now rare, Chuck said.

Laws passed several years ago make it difficult for teens to get student visas and attend U.S. high schools unless they are enrolled in approved exchange programs. Otherwise, they are charged thousands of dollars in "tuition" to attend public schools here, he said.

The Cranstons hosted their third AFS student, Marco Abellan from Costa Rica, during the 1996-97 school year.

Now, after a two-year gap, they have another AFSer from Costa Rica, Jose Araya, who is enrolled as a freshman at KCHS.

"We couldn't ask for a better kid," Nancy said.

Keeping the doors open

Curiosity about the world, a sense of adventure, personal generosity and a genuine fondness for young people keep some families coming back again and again to host exchange students.

The Cranstons have hosted the largest and most diverse number of students, but other families share their enthusiasm.

"The whole experience is just a reward," said Tapia.

She and her husband, Paul Packard, have hosted five students from three different exchange programs over the past decade. This year, they are hosting Daniel Elster, a junior at Soldotna High School from Austria.

However, being host parents is challenging.

Communicating across the language and cultural divide can make life frustrating for all involved, especially early in the year, said Eileen Bryson.

She and her husband, Phil, have hosted three AFS students and sent all four of their own children abroad, three as exchange students and one into the Peace Corps.

"Sometimes you don't know that they aren't understanding things, and they don't know they aren't understanding," she said.

Tapia added that the relationships have painful moments.

"Saying goodbye: You get so attached to them. I have not found a good way to say goodbye."

But such hurdles are worth it, host parents say.

Bryson said it is fun to have someone in the family from another part of the world, to learn about other languages and cultures and share our nation with visitors.

Davids, who remains active in AFS in Anchorage, agreed.

People involved in foreign exchanges tend to be interesting, pleasant and optimistic, working on making the world a better place one little bit at a time, he said.

But even among such fine company, the Cranstons stand out.

"They are pretty low-key about what they do for everyone," Davids said. "They do make a difference for a lot of people."

Davids said in addition to hosting and helping him, Chuck and Nancy have financed Alaska students going abroad, temporarily taken in youngsters involved with the court system and encouraged many kids in many ways.

"They are incredibly generous with their lives," he said. "They are a really neat family."



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