By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Wendy Cruff became a host mom last year for Greenheart Exchange after seeing an ad seeking host families in her church bulletin at St. James Catholic Church. 

“It was calling to me,” said Cruff, whose adult daughter had been an exchange student in Taiwan. “I saw how much being an exchange student helped her grow.” 

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Against that backdrop, Cruff accepted two students into her home — Matilde from Italy in September and Yohan from Brazil in October. They attend Baymeadows Charter School. 

“I feel like I have gained a heart full of joy,” said Cruff. “I feel a lot of gratitude to give them these experiences, and I feel blessed to have two students who bring so much joy into my home.” 

Cruff, who has two adult children and four grandchildren, said she tries to provide as many fun experiences for the students as possible. Some highlights and firsts so far: Watching their first live performance by seeing “The Nutcracker,” watching a Jaguars football game (which just happened to be the game against the Tennessee Titans), attending a Jumbo Shrimp baseball game, going to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and seeing St. Augustine Nights of Lights. 

“This really is a bonding experience,” she said. 

Greenheart Exchange is a part of Greenheart International and provides students with an opportunity to have an American high school experience and to be fully immersed in the English language. Since 1985, Greenheart Exchange has placed more than 25,000 International exchange students with host families in the United States. 

Cruff credits Greenheart Exchange local coordinator Wanda Cox with providing a very strong support system for host families in the area and for making the entire process easy on everyone. 

Cox first became involved with hosting exchange students with Greenheart Exchange while in Connecticut, filling a temporary housing need for two students from China and a student from Spain for three summer programs. When she moved to Florida a year and a half ago, Cox saw a job posting to be the local coordinator. 

“It spoke to me,” said Cox, who also hosted a student from Germany last year for a school year. “Our family has grown, and our hearts have been expanded from these experiences.” 

Cox helps to find host families for international high school students for a full or partial school year, depending on the needs of the exchange student. Students come from a range of cultures and backgrounds with more than 60 countries represented. 

In addition to finding a host family, Greenheart Exchange also must find a school to accept the student. Currently, Greenheart Exchange students are enrolled at Beachside High, Fleming Island High, Matanzas High, and several Jacksonville charter schools.

Cox said prospective host families need only have “a willingness to open their hearts and home” to an exchange student. The basic requirements for host families are to provide a bed, three meals, local transportation, and a welcoming family atmosphere. 

“A host family could be a single parent, someone who is retired, an empty nester, or a big family,” said Cox. 

The first step is to fill out an application where families can express their interests and indicate a country preference, she said. From there, a background check will be conducted, and references will be checked with the goal of finding a safe and loving environment for the student. In addition, Cox checks in with both the student and family throughout the school year to make sure everything is going smoothly. 

“Once you have the experience, it just opens your heart and makes you want to keep doing it,” said Cox. “It is very exciting for the student and the family to make these memories.” 

For Cox, the experience makes the world seem a little smaller and gives her the opportunity to witness the excitement of someone trying new things. 

For example, one student got to ride a go-kart for the first time, another really wanted to try Cheetos and another really loved having a Dr. Pepper soda, s’mores, and sweet potato fries. 

Cox said that bonding also takes place with the parents of the student, often becoming an extension of the family with a lifelong connection. 

Also, important to note, said Cox, is that the exchange student will have their own health insurance and a regular monthly amount of money to cover outside expenses such as school sports, uniforms and trips. 

“You are not expected to be a tour guide. There are lots of free and affordable things to do in Florida,” she said. “Most of these students are quite worldly with a great sense of independence and self-sufficiency in many ways.” 

[Author’s note: Greenheart Exchange is currently accepting host family applications for the 2023 – 24 school year. For more information, call Cox at (904) 588-2338 or go to]

Photo courtesy Wanda Cox 
Greenheart Exchange students at a recruiting fair.

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