A woman, man child and young woman standing for a photo
Left to right: Julie Shiflet, Stacy Shiflet, Sofia Shiflet and Gabriela Rodríguez Cervantes (from Mexico to Virginia). Photo courtesy of Paris Hutchinson

We agreed to host an IVEPer this year without a whole lot of information about the program. After we read the personal information about Gabriela, we knew right away she would fit well with our family. We had hosted a high school student several years before and were a bit skeptical after some bumps with that experience, but we cleared out a space and our preconceptions from the earlier experience and gave it another try.

One thing we learned from the earlier experience was that we didn’t clear out enough space! We didn’t empty all the drawers and only half the closet and found ourselves having to clean out more stuff as we went along which probably didn’t feel very welcoming. This time we cleaned out the whole closet and all the drawers, so Gabriela had a space to settle in and feel like it was her own without having to fill in around our things or us needing to come in and grab things from her space. We wanted her to feel like this was her space and not one that was shared with us while leaving pictures and decor that helped to make it cozy.

We did encourage Gabriela to be part of our family activities and daily life. Early on, we let her know our normal routines and expectations like when we had church activities, that we ate together as a family for dinner and when bedtime was for our young daughter. This was helpful for Gabriela to see what we wanted her to engage in with us, but also allowed her to make choices for when she wanted time on her own or with new friends she made at work. Having times we expected her to be part of our activities also told her we valued her as part of our family.   

We found open communication to be key. We tried to share as much as possible without overwhelming Gabriela when she first arrived. This is the bathroom you’ll use, and this is how the shower works. There were times when we got confused or lost in translation, but we just kept talking and asking questions. For example, she once asked me about getting “the other end” to which I asked, “the other end of what?” After a few more questions, some acting out, and a lot of laughing, we realized she needed deodorant. It was helpful that she wasn’t afraid to ask about things even when things weren’t always easy. Gabriela sometimes seemed nervous to ask a question, but we would quickly say she could ask us anything.

Gabriela did have a traumatic loss early on during her stay with us. She returned home to Mexico for two weeks to be with family and we knew it would not be easy to return. We tried to be as supportive as possible and give her space and time to heal when she came back. We wanted to make sure she knew we were her family here and she could lean on us as well. There were a few times after this when we had family gatherings planned for the holidays and Gabriela wasn’t sure she really wanted to attend. We wanted to show empathy but also didn’t want to let her get lost in grief and miss out on experiences. She was so thankful afterwards and found the time with our extended family helpful.

Although we had agreed to keep Gabriela for only the first half of her placement, after such a traumatic loss and because she fit so well with our family, we agreed to have her stay with us for the second half of her placement as well. Our time was not without challenges. Gabriela did not approve of our “fake” Mexican restaurant choices and even asked that we stop trying new places even though she missed her food from home. Food was a time of connection for us and we had many great conversations surrounding meals together. We and Gabriela are thankful for our time together and will continue to stay in contact as we do feel like we have a new family together.

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