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Foreign relations

Hosting an exchange student has its benefits, but it requires a lot of flexibility

By most standards Anessa and Steve Odum have their hands full. He's in the Air Force and often away-maybe three weeks every month and a half. She homeschools their oldest two children, ages 7 and 5, while also caring for the two youngest, ages 3 and 9 months (the 3-year-old's twin brother died in infancy).

When I met and talked to Anessa at a baseball game in St. Louis, her family had just said goodbye to a foreign exchange student from Sweden. The high-school student was the third exchange student (they have also hosted students from Hong Kong and Germany) the Odums have hosted through AYUSA, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for international students to study in the United States and American students to study abroad.

Why would a busy family take in an exchange student? "We love the idea of exposing our kids to a different culture," Anessa Odum said. She also wants to expose them to the sounds of a different language when her kids are still developing their language skills.

Since host families choose students based on website profiles, wise host families learn to read between the lines. Their German student turned out to be very independent and surprised when she discovered that the Odums expected her to obey a curfew and eat dinner with the family: "What do you mean I have a curfew? What do you mean I have to eat with you?"

Eventually they arrived at an arrangement that worked: The student learned generally to abide by the curfew and called if she was going to be late. In turn, the Odums loosened their expectations for family dinner. In retrospect, Odum says maybe the girl was giving signals about her independent streak when she expressed on her profile a love of hip-hop music.

Choosing a student is only the first step. It took months between the time the Odums selected their Swedish student, Lisa, before the student knew she'd been chosen by a host family. The hang-up was the public school district, which has to give permission for the student to attend. Some school districts refuse for budget reasons. After repeated calls by Odum and the AYUSA representative, the local school finally agreed, and by then it was only a week before the beginning of the school year. Meanwhile, they'd been praying for Lisa and hoping that no other host family would choose her.

AYUSA is not a Christian program and it discourages evangelism. But the organization encourages its participants to attend church with host families as part of the cultural experience. The Odums have included students in their normal activities including worship and prayer. They even attended a Chinese church with their student from Hong Kong.

Living with an almost-adult from a radically different background requires flexibility. Odum says she's learned to "accept that they aren't our kids," and that means allowing the students to do some things that she wouldn't necessarily want her own kids to do: "We try to keep them safe and love on them the best we can."

Strange science

What if you could set up a museum devoted to the oddities of science, archeology, and history? Educator Lee Krystek's Museum of Unnatural Mystery ( is a website museum with engagingly written stories about weird and wacky science-related subjects. It's graphically appealing and written in a kid-friendly style. The site is a great source for odd information sure to lead to hours of "Did you know?" conversations with kids of a certain age. (Caution: Like most science sites, it has an evolution bent, but the topic is not the main thing.)

Faulty ladders

Christian counselor and professor David Powlison says we can plot on a spectrum any human difference: wealth, height, weight, and so forth. The problem, he says, is that human beings tend to take those spectrums and turn them into ladders signifying relative importance or worth.

For example, we turn a spectrum about wealth into a ladder with rich people at the top and poor people at the bottom, as though rich people are better than poor people. We spend our lives, Powlison suggests, scrambling up these ladders and hoping to find significance. We don't realize that our 15-foot ladders are propped up against a 25-foot wall. No matter how high we climb, or how near the top of the ladder we are, those ladders can't bring us righteousness.

That's a good image to keep in mind when reading about the latest consumer trends. says, "The need for recognition and status is at the heart of every consumer trend." We live at a time when conspicuous consumption is out of favor, so marketers are trying to identify alternative status ladders. Trendwatching notes, " For an increasing number of consumers, the mere act of consuming less is the greenest status fix of all."

Marketers call these folks the LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) and estimate they make up about a fifth of U.S. adults, including those interested in natural foods, ecotourism, alternative energy and transportation. Check out or to get a feel for what motivates this group.

Email Susan Olasky

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Hillery Smith Shay/Genesis Photos for WORLD

(Hillery Smith Shay/Genesis Photos for WORLD)


Sounding out

Many toys make too much noise for the health of the children who play with them

Baby Einstein Farm Friends (Play-A-Song). Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Letters Mailbox. LeapFrog Learn & Groove Counting Maracas. What do these toys have in common? They are noisy and designed for toddler play.

Julee Sylvester works at the nonprofit Sight & Hearing Association in St. Paul, Minn. Every autumn since 1998 she's gone shopping at a local toy store, sound meter in hand, to test the noise levels of various toys. She pushes buttons and takes a quick reading. Then she buys some of the toys for further testing. Last year she bought 19 toys, including the toys above. University of Minnesota researchers tested the 19 toys in a more rigorous fashion, measuring the noise level close to the toy's speaker and 10 inches away, to imitate the different ways a child might play with the toy. Fifteen of the 19 toys emitted sounds louder than 100 decibels (dB) at the speaker and above 80 dB at a distance of 10 inches.

Sylvester estimates that 75 to 80 percent of toys intended for young children have buttons, which mean noise. Is the noise loud enough to be harmful? Pam Mason, head of the audiology practices section of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association says anything above 85 dB can cause hearing loss. It's not just the intensity, she says, but duration and repeated duration. Kids who listen all day long to loud sounds face "a greater risk of getting a noise induced hearing loss."

Since 2004 some toymakers have followed a voluntary standard that suggests toys should not exceed 90 decibels at 10 inches from the speaker. There's no requirement that toys meet that standard-and the standard is silly when applied to toys meant for babies and toddlers whose arms aren't much longer than 10 inches. They aren't going to hold the toy in an outstretched arm, especially if it is a cuddly toy like Tickle Me Elmo.

So what should parents do? Most parents don't go toy shopping with a sound meter, so Sylvester says they need to use common sense: "If the toy is too loud for you, it is too loud for your child." She also recommends that people buy toys without buttons; your kids can make their own noise. Look for toys that have a volume control and set it at the lowest volume. Take out the batteries. Sylvester says at her house she sticks clear packing tape over the toy's speaker to muffle the sound.

Mason says parents need to understand that well-meaning gifts can be dangerous: "Even a mild hearing loss has huge negative consequences" for a child, especially since it can affect speech development.

How did Baby Einstein and the other toys score? The Baby Einstein board book (which a child is likely to hold near her ear) scored above 111 dB at the speaker and 81 dB 10 inches away. The Fisher Price mailbox scored above 113 dB at the speaker and 91.5 at arm's length. The LeapFrog maracas (intended for babies 6 months and up) scored above 102 dB at the speaker and above 85 dB 10 inches away. Sylvester says she's tested toys from all major manufacturers in different price ranges: "There's no rhyme or reason why one is loud."

The origami option

Next time your child complains that it is hot outside and there's nothing to do, check out a fabulous website that has instructions for doing origami, the Japanese paper-folding craft. The website provides animated instructions as well as diagrams for hundreds of different creations, divided into 25 categories. Under the animal category were 53 different critters, including pandas, hamsters, pigs, hippos, chameleons, snakes, and swans. The site is, but if you want the English rather than the Japanese version, use this address:

Stormy weather

Hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, is here. Experts expect as many as a dozen hurricanes and two dozen storms big enough to name.

Since 1950 the Weather Bureau has officially named hurricanes according to the letters of the alphabet. The World Meteorological Organization keeps a six-year cycle of names, so this year the storms will carry the same first letters as storms in 2004, which was a bad hurricane year. Four major hurricanes-Charley, Francis, Ivan, and Jeanne-hit Florida that year. Those names are now retired to the history books, but Colin, Fiona, Igor, and Julia will take their places.

According to the Census Bureau, 12 percent of the nation's population lives in coastal areas stretching from North Carolina to Texas that are most vulnerable to hurricanes. The population in those areas has increased from 14 million in 1960 to 36.2 million in 2009.

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Bargain bliss

Wedding planner helps couples 'make the main thing the main thing' on their big day

If you've watched TLC's "Say Yes to the Dress," you know that many a bride considers her gown to be the one crucial ingredient for a happy wedding, and by implication, marriage. Who wouldn't spend a small fortune to get that guarantee?

When New York wedding planner Mary Hines sits down with a bride and groom she tries to get them to change their perspectives, to ask, "What's going to matter in 30 years?" Most of her couples are Christians going through marriage counseling. They share her belief that marriage is a covenant and that vows should be at the forefront, but they also feel the pressure to have a gala event.

I asked Hines how she advises brides who have limited resources. What should they be thinking about? Her answer is simple: "Make the main thing the main thing. Spend your time and money on the things that are most important. Don't compare yourself with others. If your day is to honor God and the marriage, yes you want it to look nice, but it's not the most important thing."

What would that mean practically? She tells brides to concentrate on their vows, the photographs (since they'll want to remember the occasion), and their wedding night. "We get so caught up in decorating the house we forget what's actually happening," she says.

Many brides complain afterwards that they can't remember the day, so Hines advises them to pad their wedding day timelines, leaving enough time to enjoy friends, family, and out-of-town guests. "Plan for traffic," she says. She said in Florida more couples are taking photographs before the ceremony, renting a limo, and heading out with the bridal party to scenic locations around town before going to the church. (She says the superstition about grooms not seeing the bride until the ceremony comes from the days of arranged marriages when the bride's family feared the groom would bolt if he wasn't pleased with her looks.)

Getting photos out of the way before the ceremony allows the reception to start earlier, which means the newlyweds can leave before they are ready to pass out from exhaustion.

Places to economize? "I can't tell you the number of wedding favors I've thrown in the trash," she says. People rarely remember the music played before and after the ceremony. She recommends using the internet to find ideas-and getting married on Friday or Sunday, when venues are cheaper.

In Hines' 14 years in the business she's done 60 to 70 weddings with budgets ranging from $100 (family and friends donated just about everything) to $250,000. Nothing major has ever gone wrong, although a couple of episodes make for vivid movie scenes (and good memories). Once a mother-of-the-bride hired for $50 a videographer she met at a homeless shelter, thinking it was a good thing to do. When he showed up drunk and realized he'd missed the ceremony completely, he sat in a corner and cried.

Another time the couple forgot the rings. One of the attendants managed to tell Hines as they processed up the aisle. She had time to grab a fake silver ring out of her emergency bag, where she also carries smelling salts, along with her husband's wedding ring for use during the ceremony.

When one groom had his heart set on an outdoor reception in his backyard in Florida in September, Hines didn't argue with him. Instead, she arranged a planning meeting outdoors in the summer sun. When he wanted to move the meeting indoors with the air conditioner, she said no. Better yet, he should go inside and put on a suit and come back out. Once he realized how hot it was, and how tents with air conditioning would take away the charm of an outdoor wedding, he was able, Hines says, "to get over his idealism."

That's the point: "Getting through the idealism to realism and being content while realizing it won't matter in 30 years."

Weddings and the web

Mary Hines recommends several websites, including . . .

Other helpful sites . . . has many shops selling wedding-related items, and has many links to wedding treasures.

Wedding stats

26 . . . Average bride age

28 . . . Average groom age

$50 billion . . . Amount spent yearly on wedding-related purchases

$22,000 . . . Average amount spent on a traditional American wedding

80% . . . Percentage of traditional weddings performed in churches or synagogues

60% . . . Percentage of brides who say they'll be changing their surnames

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