Transatlantic ties

Just last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the virtues of extending a hand to foreign-exchange students and finding a place in their homes for them.

"Each year, thousands of engaged young people from around the world travel to the United States, eager to learn about American life and share perspectives from their own countries," Clinton said. "Families who welcome these exchange students into their homes and hearts not only enrich the life of an exceptional young person, they help build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last a lifetime."

The timing of Clinton's message couldn't have been more coincidental for Bondil Dencker, director of the Laguna Beach-based World Heritage International Student Exchange Programs.

The Denmark woman is in the midst of trying find homes for European high school students in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, and what's incredibly frustrating, she said, is that sometimes there are families out there who are interested but simply don't know about the student-exchange program through World Heritage International.

"It's a great experience taking in students, learning about their cultures and have them learn what it's like to live like an American," said Dencker, who recently placed a 17-year-old Italian student, Sofia Cornali, with Alayne Derecat and her daughter, Tessa Derecat, 15.

Sofia plans to live at the Derecat home in San Juan Capistrano until next summer and will attend Santa Margarita Catholic High School. The Derecat home pulled out all sorts of punches in preparing Sofia's room, including decorating it with images of Elvis Presley, who Sofia adores.

Talk to Sofia, and you wouldn't even know she was Italian. Fluent in English and enthralled by the American way of life, she fits right into Orange County, something Tessa picked up on immediately when she first met her for a quick meet and greet.

The two hit it off, says the mother Alayne, who said the only fear the household really had was whether the two girls would get along.

"But that was solved as soon as they met one another," said Alayne, adding that Tessa's pair of older siblings are currently in college, leaving Tessa with a lot of time on her hands and looking for a friend around the house.

She found one in Sofia. It's only been a week, and the two seem inseparable. Next up is the classroom, where Sofia will take a variety of classes until the spring, then eventually return home to her town of Massa, Italy, which is near Florence, next summer.

"I was thinking about going home for Christmas, but then I thought again and decided it would be too emotionally stressful for me," said Sofia.

Plus, the point of the program, says Dencker, is to make sure that the students spend key holidays with the American families and get a chance to see how a family such as the Derecat's spends Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's eve.

If you'd like to become a host family, call Bondil at (949) 310-5612.

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