Dan and Helen Anderson have lived a life surrounded by and caring for children, none of whom are their own. The couple run Babyland Diaper Service – a subscription cloth diaper service – and they’ve opened their home to 65 foreign exchange students since 1990.
The main reason the Andersons never had children is that Dan Anderson has a rare degenerative liver disease. He had a liver transplant in 1987 and was doing well until a few years ago.
“I tell people the kids keep me young,” he said. “Most transplants last 15 to 17 years, so I think I’ve done great with mine.” His liver came from a Montana woman who was killed in a motorcycle accident on her 21st birthday.
“Transplants were different back then. I was the only one on the waiting list in Spokane,” said Dan Anderson softly. “I was very lucky that worked out.”
After the transplant, the couple began looking into becoming foster parents, or maybe getting involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters, or perhaps adopting children.
“We got very close to adopting,” Helen Anderson said, who married her husband in 1976. “But I just knew I couldn’t handle it if I adopted a child and later the child wanted to know its biological parents.”
It was a church flier that provided the perfect opportunity: A program was looking for host families for foreign exchange students and the Andersons signed up. The first student arrived in 1990.
Since then, they’ve hosted students from Sweden, Germany, Norway, Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic, just to mention a few countries. Some students stay for a whole school year, others stay for six weeks in the summer, and occasionally there was some overlap.
“We had seven students at the house at one time,” said Helen Anderson, laughing. “It looked like a dorm. We had cots and hung sheets between the beds. Kids were sleeping all over, it seemed like.”
This is not a money-making venture because host families are not compensated.
“Oh gosh, the groceries we’d go through,” Helen Anderson said. “The milk and cereal and the popcorn and the food – it’s a lot. But we loved it.” Most students arrived with some English skills, but there were some who were pretty blank in the language department. Among many things, the Andersons tried electronic translation gadgets to bridge the language gap.
“They were supposed to translate a word or a sentence for you, but they never worked,” Dan Anderson said. “The best you can do is just talk to the student. The more you communicate, the more they understand.”
Then there was Fredrick Savenstrand who arrived from Sweden in 1994.
“We couldn’t get him to call home no matter how many times we told him to call,” said Helen Anderson. “It took three weeks before he finally got on the phone with his mom, and we could tell they were arguing.”
Because that conversation was in Swedish, it wasn’t until a few years later when Savenstrand’s sister Hanna came to stay and then the parents visited, that they got the full story.
“Fredrick wanted to show his parents he could do it on his own,” said Helen Anderson. “His parents had told him they didn’t think he could do it, so he was showing them he could.”
The Andersons made a point of taking the students swimming and golfing. They played tennis and went skiing, boating and water skiing.
“We did what we could to keep them entertained,” Dan Anderson said. “It keeps them out of trouble, and it is fun. Many of the students had never tried anything like water skiing when they came over here.”
And they quickly agreed on mostly hosting boys.
“Girls have too much luggage,” said Dan Anderson, laughing.
Many of their students stay in touch to this day, via Skype and email, and some have become as close as family.
Andrej Valko came from Prague, Czech Republic, to stay for a school year in 1996.
Toward the end of his stay, his brother Stan came to visit.
The two brothers helped the Andersons do some home improvement, and they pitched in with the business.
Andrej Valko is still on Skype with Dan Anderson every week, and when Valko found out that Dan Anderson’s health was once again deteriorating, he sprang into action.
“The family flew Stan over to help us, and then their father came, too,” Helen Anderson said.
Andrej Valko is getting married in August.
“He told us to keep him informed, and if anything happens to Dan, he will postpone the wedding to come and help us with the business,” said Helen Anderson, getting teary-eyed. “There is just no way we can ever repay them for that.”
The Andersons haven’t had any foreign exchange students for the past two years, because Dan Anderson’s health is faltering. He’s been in the hospital a few times. Helen Anderson said she feels like it wouldn’t be fair to host a student in the middle of a health crisis.
Today, the Andersons receive wedding and birth announcements from all over the world. Their exchange students are now adults with careers and families of their own, yet many stay in touch.
“They really are ‘our’ kids,” Helen Anderson said. “All of them. They all have a very special place in my heart.”