Friday, April 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> Student’s nightmare over

Foreign exchange student Felicia Kasselback is all smiles with her best host parents, Debbie and Phil Taylor of Cabot.


Leader staff writer

A Cabot family has opened its house and its hearts to a foreign-exchange student who was thinking about packing her bags and returning to Europe after two troubling stays with host families in Arkansas.

Felicia Kasselback, 18, of Stockholm, Sweden, enrolled in a foreign-exchange student program with 10 of her friends from Stockholm to attend high school for a year in the U.S.

Even though they will not get credit for their year here — they will have to repeat their senior year when they return to Sweden — the exchange students looked forward to studying in the U.S. and making new friends.

But for Felicia, the excitement of studying in America came to a screeching halt almost as soon as she landed here.

Her nightmare began the day after she arrived in Arkansas last August. She landed in Little Rock at night after a 19-hour flight.

Felicia was scheduled to spend a year with a host family in Camden, which included two daughters—one Felicia’s age and the other younger.

She recalled the horrible conditions she found when she awoke that first morning. “The host family’s house was messy and nasty,” she said. The photos of the home that were e-mailed to Felicia when she was in Sweden didn’t show any of the filth she found when she got here.

She said the Camden home had holes in the floors. The house had mold in the bathroom. The kitchen was messy. Old food was left out on the counters. Clothing was scattered everywhere.

“They didn’t care. All they did was watch television because they said it was too hot,” Felicia said.

She said the family did not have much money and bought cheap, unhealthy foods. She bought her own food, including fruit and yogurt.

Kasselback’s mother told her to give it some time. She stayed two weeks. Felicia said the house got dirtier and messier.

She took photos of the condition in the house and e-mailed them to her mom. Her mother forwarded the photos to the foreign-exchange student program.

The exchange program contacted Felicia a day later and told her help was on the way. The next day, the student-exchange program sent a student coordinator to the house.

Felicia said the exchange program called the host family and told them she was leaving.

“The mother got upset and starting screaming at me,” Felicia said.

She packed her belongings. The student coordinator took Felicia away. She stayed in the coordinator’s Camden home for three days.

The host family wrote insulting messages on Felicia’s Facebook page. She had to change her password. She said she was frightened.

The family sent back the gifts Felicia had given them and wrote nasty letters.

She said the host mom harassed the student coordinator to the point that the coordinator was afraid for Kasselback’s safety.

She was moved to a second student coordinator’s home in Beebe, where she stayed four days.

Felicia’s next stop, her third week in the United States, was to live with a host family in Enola (Faulkner County). The parents had two sons—one was Felicia’s age and the other was a pre-teen.

“The house was huge and gorgeous. It was clean,” she said.

She said the host parents were older, quieter and laid back. Felicia attended Mount Vernon High School for three weeks.

Then, for the second time, she wished she were back home.

She noticed the father was always watching her. He went into her room and wouldn’t leave her alone. He would ask inappropriate questions about her relationship with her boyfriend in Sweden. He also started touching her feet.

Felicia said she was scared. She contacted the foreign-exchange student coordinator in Beebe and called her mom.

She was afraid all communications might be broken off and she wouldn’t be able to contact her parents.

For the second time, she moved back into the student coordinator’s home in Beebe for three days and tried to find another host family, possibly in another state.

Felicia then found the break she had been praying for.

The student coordinator’s parents were friends with Debbie and Phil Taylor of Cabot.

The Taylors had opened their home a year ago, when the coordinator needed help placing Lara Schirmer, a German foreign-exchange student.

She, too, had difficulties with her host family. Schirmer had signed up for a semester in the U.S.

Originally, the Taylors were going to let Schirmer stay at their home for a few days until a new host family was found, but they decided to let her spend four months at their home and finish the school year.

Schirmer is coming back to the U.S. to visit the Taylors for five weeks this summer.

Debbie Taylor said they have never applied to be a host family, but she offers protection, mothering and love to the exchange students who need help.

Felicia, who has stayed with the Taylors since September, is a senior at Cabot High School.

In the spring musical “Aida,” she was in the cast as a handmaiden for the princess.

“I thought the musical was really fun. I had really good teachers,” she said.

At high school in Stockholm, Felicia is focused on economics and business. She said she would like to be a lawyer.

She says of her new host mom, “We are always together. We are very good friends. She is a nice, wonderful person.”

“It is great. It is like home,” she added.

She says of her new host family, “They know when I am homesick. They let me talk to my parents.”

Debbie Taylor said, “I protect her as my own child. There are no miles between our hearts—we are connected.”

“We have been blessed with a home we are able to share,” she added.

Phil Taylor said all that is required for a host family is to give exchange students a roof over their head and a place at the table and treat them as part of their family.

Anything the Taylors do, Felicia participates in.

Debbie said it was a blessing to have Felicia during the holidays.

Debbie said, “For us it is an honor to host an exchange student in the home. I don’t take it lightly.”

Phil said, “We do spoil her rotten, and she does the same back.”

For spring break, Jenny Kvarby-Engvall, 17, Felicia’s friend since junior high school, visited Cabot. Kvarby-Engvall is an exchange student attending high school in Melrose, Wis.

She and Felicia grew up in the same neighborhood in Stockholm.

They went on a Caribbean cruise with the Taylors’ son, Josh, and his wife Tiffinie, who is the daughter of Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams.