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CCU Atheneum: Paula Ochoa, left, joins her American family: Tracy, Kayla and Debbie Conner at the Coastal-Clemson game.
Paula Ochoa, left, joins her American family: Tracy, Kayla and Debbie Conner at the Coastal-Clemson game.

Conners host Rotary exchange student

by Corrie Lee Lacey
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Debbie Conner has a new daughter for eight months, and she didn’t even have to endure nine months of pregnancy.

Conner, associate vice president of university relations at Coastal Carolina University, is playing double-duty motherhood as the temporary parent of a foreign exchange student from Ecuador named Maria Paula Ochoa.

Debbie and her husband Tracy “adopted” Paula through a program set up by the Carolina Forest Sunrise Rotary Club.

“We filled out an application, and she filled out an application,” Conner said. “She looked at ours; we looked at hers. And we decided very quickly that we wanted her.”

The Conners have daughter Kayla, 15, a freshman at Carolina Forest High School. Debbie said she was apprehensive about having two teenage girls living under one roof. But with the help of Rotary International, the family was able to map out a family contract and anticipate potential tension by answering a list of questions provided by the club.

“Both girls wear the same size clothing,” Conner said. “So we had to make a rule about borrowing clothes and about knocking before going into each others’ room.”

Although she has only been with them for a little over a month, Conner says that Paula is a member of the family.

“We treat her just as we treat our own child,” Conner said. “She’s just a new member of the family. She even calls us Mama and Papa. And she gets no special privileges. Except maybe Facebook. It’s hard for me to keep an eye on her Facebook because it’s all in Spanish,” Conner laughed.

Ochoa is a junior at Carolina Forest High School and a member of the varsity basketball team. With Kayla on the J.V. cheerleading squad, Conner is finding it hard to balance the two girls’ schedules.

“I’ve never understood how challenging two children can be,” Conner said. “I’m learning a lot, but it’s a big adjustment.”

Conner says she wants her daughter to have a more global view of the world than she did growing up, and feels that exposing Kayla to different cultures is an invaluable experience.

According to Conner, the family learns one Spanish word or phrase a day and helps Paula learn one new English word.

Paula participates in many activities with Kayla including visits to the mall, trips to the movie theater and preparing dinners. Paula is also expected to wash her own laundry and help with the dishes, a big change from what she is used to. In her own Ecuadorian home, the family has servants who are responsible for the housekeeping and cooking.

“Our way of living is a lot different than hers,” Conner said. “But she’s had a great attitude about doing stuff. She’s learned to do all her chores, and Kayla even taught her how to make an omelet.”

Although the family has already shared many enjoyable moments in Ochoa’s short stay, Conner says they have had their fair share of low times, too.

“We had our first big cry session the other day,” Conner said. “She had a really bad day at school so I sat her on the bed and talked her through it.”

Conner also said Paula was a little homesick at the start of the exchange, missing her dog the most. But after receiving a package from her family filled with her favorite foods including chocolates and banana jelly, Paula began to get adjusted.

Ochoa is Conner’s second foreign exchange student. Last year Conner hosted a student from South Africa for eight weeks.

“The hardest part was letting her go,” Conner said. “She cried. I cried. I try not to think about it. I just try to focus on ensuring that we all have a good experience and lasting memories. And we still keep in touch.”

 Ochoa will stay with the family until June 30, 2010. Debbie hopes that Paula’s time spent in America will connect her with students and people of the county, allowing her to get a broad view of the culture.

“The most important traits are flexibility and adaptability,” Conner said. “And being eager to try something new. We love Paula, and we have a lot of fun with her.”

Those interested in being a host parent must complete a written application, which includes program rules and requirements, a signed compliance statement, and authorization for reference checks. Because the program is decentralized, however, the application process varies from district to district. Contact local Rotarians for details.

For more information on the Carolina Forest Sunrise Rotary Club, contact Tim McCoy, president, at tmccoy@horrycountystatebank.com.

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