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Luthis expand family, friendship through foreign exchange

From left, Johnnita Luthi, Anabel Lilja and Randy Luthi at Anabel's graduation dinner in Germany. Lilja was an exchange student at the Luthi home when she attended Hancock High School in 2013-2014. Photo submitted1 / 2
From left, Anabel Lilja, Randy Luthi, Johnnita Luthi, Zoe Poschinski. Front row Brady and Noah Luthi. The group is pictured in Germany. Poschinski and Lilja were exchange students at Hancock High School during the 2013-2014 school year. Lilja lived with the Luthis. Photo submitted2 / 2

Randy and Johnnita (Johnny) Luthi were instructed to treat their foreign exchange student like a member of their family. The Luthis said they might have failed to follow instructions.

"I feel like we kind of spoiled her," Johnny said.

"It's hard. You want them to enjoy the experience, so you maybe do things you wouldn't (normally) do," Randy said.

The Luthis and their two sons, Noah and Brady, found an approach that worked as the family and foreign exchange Anabel Lilja bonded. This past summer, the Luthis visited Lilja at her home in Bad Segeberg, Germany. The teen also visited the Luthis a few years after she left Hancock. Lilja was a student at Hancock High School during the 2013-2014 school year.

"I think we were pretty fortunate," Johnny said. Although the family traveled to Duluth and Florida during Lilja's stay in Hancock, Lilja became part of the family's home routine.

"She did chores, did her laundry and cooked a meal once in a while," Johnny said.

And there were times when the conversation between Lilja and the Luthis was much like a conversation between a 15-year-old-teen and her parents. Johnny recalled one day after a period when Lilja had been reluctant to participate in school life. "She was up in her room watching a lot of Netflix," Johnny said. Johnny asked Lilja if she thought her parents had spent all this money to have her attend school in America just so she could watch Netflix. Lilja then became more engaged.

The teen participated in various sports and other activities in the school. She was fortunate because a second exchange student from Germany, Zoe Poschinski, was also in high school that same school year, Johnny said. But Lilja also connected with students who had lived in Hancock all or most of their lives.

While Lilja experienced life in rural Hancock, the Luthis were able to learn about Lilja's hometown this summer. They attended Lilja's high school graduation.

The Luthis attended the formal graduation meal with Lilja's family. "The kids dress like they are going to prom," Johnny said. "There's a dance after and it's like all night."

"She got home at 5 or 6 a.m. and we went home at 10 p.m.," Randy said.

Lilja's hometown is about 16,000 people but "It felt like a bigger city," Randy said.

The family had heard about her hometown. Seeing it in person was special.

"Where she lived was in the central part of town," Randy said. "We would walk to the market each day. One thing we really miss is the bakery."

They appreciated their time with Lilja. The trip to Germany created many fond memories through spending time with her and her family. The Luthi boys even learned new soccer drills from Lilja's dad.

The family visited local landmarks and attractions. One highlight was an American wild west show. The show is presented in an old quarry in a large outdoor arena.

Lilja had told the Luthis the wild west show with Indians, cowboys and calvary was a big deal. Thousands of people attend it each summer, Johnny said.

"It was really fun. Even if we didn't understand a word of it, we understood the action and the story line," Randy said.

In a way, it's how the Luthis and Lilja became accustomed to each other in those first few days when she was at Hancock. A teen travels thousands of miles to small town in Minnesota and needs to use English, which is not her first language. There are language barriers, cultural differences and other obstacles to building a relationship.

"We just figured it out," Johnny said. "I don't know how else to explain it."

The Luthis said they liked that their two sons were young when Lilja lived with them. They think it may have been difficult if a teenaged foreign exchange student joined a family with a teenaged daughter or teenaged son because there could be pressure for the two to be good friends or have the same friends, Johnny said.

"You have to have an open mind too," Johnny said. Lilja's views, opinions and cultural norms weren't always the same as the Luthis, Johnny said. "She thought it was odd that boys didn't spend the night at a girl's house," Johnny said.

The family and Lilja were able to have conversations on different topics while each may have had a different perspective.

They plan to stay in contact. "I hope when she gets married we are invited to the wedding," Johnny said.