Chamber Reaches Out To Help House J-1 Visitors

By: Ed Maroney

Marcy Bratcher and Craig Whitcomb of Harwich gather more information after the Orleans Chamber of Commerce forum on housing J-1 visa holders. “We're looking at the option,” Whitcomb said.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS You might call it a fair exchange. The J-1 international visa program welcomes university and post-graduate students from overseas to enjoy a taste of the American experience while these visitors supplement the seasonal labor force.

Those who've hired and those who've hosted the students gathered at the senior center Jan. 31 at the invitation of the chamber of commerce to encourage other residents to share space in their homes.

“I'm an immigrant,” said Noelle Pina, the chamber's executive director. She came to the U.S. From the Bahamas for the first time on a visa.

“The primary goal is cultural exchange,” said Janice Fox of Intrax World Service. “The goal is people-to-people exchanges and public diplomacy.” The students' interests vary. “Last year, we had a rocket scientist,” Fox said. “We believe they are going to be world changers.”

The young people who come here through the U.S. State Department's J-1 program have pre-arranged jobs and are responsible for their own food and transportation. They arrive in May and depart in August or September. “They're always unskilled positions,” said Fox. “It's not an internship.”

Potential hosts will be told whether a student is just looking for a place to live or for more of a cultural exchange. Email and Skype exchanges can help make a good fit between visitor and host. Michelle Welsh of Intrax said photos of the areas of the home the students will use are helpful. “There has to be a bed per person,” she said. “No air mattresses.”

The students need a comfortable place to sleep given that some of them work two eight-hour shifts at different jobs. Brian Junkins of Friends' Marketplace and Garden Center said he hires eight to 10 J-1s a year. “You're like their family for the summer,” he said.

That message was underscored by Police Lt. Kevin Higgins, whose 29 years on the force take him back to the early days of the program. “It's incumbent on host families to look on these kids as their own,” he said.

Many of the J-1s get around on bicycles, Higgins said. In some countries, it's legal to ride a bike against traffic, which can get a cyclist pulled over here. “You're not going to write a citation for someone from Albania,” the officer said. Instead, the department has made a push to hand out blinking lights the visitors can put on their bikes or even their backpacks to keep them safer on the road at night.

The Rev. Catherine Boyle, director of the Mid-Cape J-1 Housing Program, detailed the application process for becoming a host family through her agency. It includes a home visit and a promise to help mediate disputes. If folks are reluctant to make a full-season commitment, they can act as temporary hosts (one to two weeks) for students who arrive needing to arrange summer-long housing.

Maureen O'Day of Image Makers Salon said she's been providing J-1 housing “for a long time,” and her enthusiasm for the program was evident. “They become like my family,” she said. “I often give them rides in the rain. ”

O'Day picks up her students at the bus station or even the airport, then drives them to their place of employment so they know the way. The next day, they'll get a bike. “I charge them rent; it is kind to supply them with a bike,” she said. “It'd be nice if other people did the same thing.”

Beverly Fuller of Anchorage Home Watch and Jon Fuller Locksmith was the chamber's chair when the program began decades ago. “We've got to get out there and get more (host) families,” she said. “We've had to take kids in really bad situations, who were in cramped spaces.”

Although no names were mentioned, there was an undercurrent of concern at the meeting about property owners who offer J-1s inappropriate accommodations. Just last year, two students requested a board of health inspection of their rental space in a centuries-old home in Orleans. The board found a number of violations, including apparent use of an attic storage space as a bedroom. As of last fall, the owner planned to request a variance from the board to use the third floor as a bedroom.

Regrettably, Higgins said, “there tend to be some people who try to cram people in,” but he cited the chamber, Intrax, and other agencies as being helpful in checking out accommodations.

Fuller and others at the meeting noted that one summer's cultural exchange can blossom into long-lasting friendships, with some hosts recalling visits to their former J-1s in their native lands.

To find out more about hosting a student for the summer, go to Midcapej1housing.org/forhosts/