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The History of Tom, Lilka and Cultural Homestay International

The history of CHI starts with the story of Tom and Lilka Areton. Tom, CHI’s Co-founder (with Lilka), arrived in the United States from Czechoslovakia in October 1968 – following the August 21st, 1968 military invasion of his homeland by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Though Tom was born and grew up in Bratislava, the Capital of what is now the Slovak Republic, he maintains that he always thought of himself as an American, and dreamed that someday he would come here and raise his family in the United States. He studied at Bratislava’s Comenius University, and, after landing in New York City, attended New York University. In 1970, Tom and his new bride Lilka moved to California, where Tom enrolled at Golden Gate University and San Francisco Law School.

Lilka was born in Brooklyn and raised in Toms River, New Jersey. Tom and Lilka met at an International Cafe in the heart of Manhattan, where he charmed her with his poetry and songs. Lilka had traveled for a year in Europe, attended U. C. Berkeley and Bank Street College of Education in New York and had volunteered for two years in the Peace Corps in Peru, teaching and directing a literacy program there. When Lilka returned home, she decided she would like to start a student exchange program as a great way to bring about a better understanding, tolerance and friendship among the peoples of the world. She felt that a profound change in the national attitudes, especially among the young students, would eventually bring positive changes in the whole world. Tom enthusiastically applauded Lilka’s vision and joined her wholeheartedly in this quest.

A year after they met, they visited Lilka’s mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. Enchanted by the beauty of the Golden State, they, too, migrated to Northern California where they raised their three daughters. Some years later they both found themselves working for an international student exchange organization. Lilka became their Area Administrator for San Francisco North and eventually talked Tom into teaching a group of Japanese high school students. Tom fell in love with the students, and became inspired by the profound effect a short homestay could have not only on the overseas students but also on their American host families. After two years, Tom applied and became Lilka’s boss as the Director of the Northern California programs. After four years of working in the student exchange field, they learned a great deal about homestays and what was essential in running an effective program. They both came to believe that a homestay organization needed to be non-profit and that the job of Teacher/Coordinator should be shared by two people, not just one. When their company refused to make these changes, Tom and Lilka decided to start their own exchange program, employing these and other essential improvements. (i.e. a full-time, year-round staff, own textbooks, etc.)

On November 1st, 1980, Tom and Lilka opened “California Homestay Institute.” (They never dreamed their small organization would grow beyond the borders of California.) Breaking into the student exchange market would prove to be more difficult than either Tom or Lilka had anticipated. Japan, clearly the leading country in student exchanges at that time, was the logical place for CHI to start. Tom made many forays to Japan, meeting with various dignitaries trying to win the trust that is so difficult to acquire when the cultural chasm is so wide.

Mr. Masaru Kurahashi, president of Tokyo-based ISA (International Student Advisers), was the first to bestow his confidence on CHI. In the spring of 1981, 200 Japanese ISA students participated in CHI’s first Homestay program. The students were divided between Los Angeles (where Tom was the administrator) and N. California (where Lilka was the administrator). This began a lifelong friendship with the Kurahashi family and ISA.

In 1983, when the Japanese organizations begged CHI to open up programs in the Pacific Northwest, CHI became “Cultural Homestay International,” preserving its “CHI” acronym. Prior to the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, CHI had worked exclusively with Japan. After the war, however, CHI began expanding its Academic Year Program for high schoolers to other countries around the world. This necessitated another name change and CHI became what it is today “Cultural Homestay International.” CHI also expanded the variety of its programs. The United States Department of State designated CHI for seven exchange visa programs. One of these is the Internship Training program, which gives foreign university graduates an opportunity to train in American companies or hotels for up to 18 months to learn new skills, which they take back to their home countries. One of the most popular programs is Work & Travel, which allows thousands of overseas college students a chance to hone their English skills in summer jobs and sightsee around the U.S. CHI also became designated to operate a Camp Counselor course for youth leaders and the Au Pair child care program. CHI sends American students on a variety of overseas programs, as well. At least 3,000 students and host families have participated in CHI’s homestays abroad. The latest offering from the outbound department is “World Explorers” (WE). This inexpensive travel program offers Americans a unique chance to truly immerse themselves in another culture by teaching their overseas hosting family conversational English 15 hours per week in their home in exchange for room and board.

It has been over 35 years since Tom and Lilka risked everything they had and embarked on their dream of bringing people together to make our world a better place for all the children, grandchildren, and the future generations. Through geopolitical ups and downs, through economic rollercoasters; through bureaucratic red tape and through too many other challenges to mention, the intrepid CHI icebreaker, with Tom and Lilka still at the helm, ploughs forward, unafraid, breaking the ice of ignorance and prejudice, leaving a free open passage in its wake…

It is Tom and Lilka’s continued hope that the feelings of friendship and goodwill which CHI’s students, host families and host businesses have developed for each other will continue as a positive force in our world for many decades to come.

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