In the fall, a Slaughter family grew by three members.
Joshua and Samantha O’Neal welcomed baby Andie, increasing their family to five children.
And they welcomed two European exchange students just weeks before.
Lucia Navarro, 16, of Málaga, Spain, and Nina Kuepper, 15, of Hennef, Germany, while both part of the Share! High School Exchange Program, came to Louisiana on different paths.
Joshua O’Neal said he’s been interested in the exchange student program because while growing up, a friend’s family would host foreign students. “It was pretty cool meeting people from other countries,” he said.
Then the area coordinator for Share! posted on social media, and a mutual friend shared the post.
O’Neal said the family talked about participating in the future. However, the area coordinator indicated there was a need for the current year, because an exchange student had lost a host family.
“I kind of filled all the paperwork out and then told my wife about it after it was done,” he said.
Samantha O’Neal didn’t think it was a great idea. "I was 7 months pregnant when he came home and told me. I said. ‘You’re crazy, there’s no way.’ ”
The baby would make five children, and “he wanted to bring another child into this house,” she said.
After that, the original family decided to host its student anyway. Since they had been through the approval process, which included background checks, the O’Neals plunged ahead and looked through a list of eligible students.
Lucia’s profile stood out, and they agreed to host her, Joshua O’Neal said.
Then, “September was Hurricane Harvey, and we were told that there were some exchange students that needed placement from that,” Samantha O’Neal said. “That’s how we got Nina. So she was here for two or three weeks, and I had Andie.”
To be a part of the program, students have to apply, do an interview and a lot of other paperwork.
Joshua O’Neal said, “They’re both great students at home, and in order to be accepted in the program they had to take an exam, which they both passed.”
He said he and his wife were able to tell Share! that they would prefer to have a teenage girl, since they have mostly young daughters.
In addition to infant Andie, they have Allyson, 9, Avery, 7, Kenlei, 6, and Tate, 4, is the one son.
After that, the program sent profiles with basic biographical details, including name, school, home, siblings, city and country.
Joshua O’Neal said they don’t get photos of potential students, but the family did see the essays. And from that, they picked Lucia. Then the organization makes sure the student is still coming, and the student’s country organization approves the match and then tells them what family they have been joined with.
However, “they kind of messed up with us,” Joshua said.
The U.S. group approved the match and eventually sent the O’Neals the contact information. So he sent an introductory email.
“Well, the organization in Spain had not yet told her that we were going to be her family, so they wouldn’t allow her to answer me until they approved it on that end,” he said.
Lucia said, “It was about one month between when he sent me the message and when they told me something. I was so nervous.”
Lucia’s home city has a population of 569,130, so when she looked up Slaughter, she cried.
“My high school in Spain, we have 1,500 kids, and it says Slaughter has 1,000 (people),” she said.
She said being in a small town was different and “I really didn’t want to come here. Now I’ve been here a while, I really like it.”
Nina was originally teamed with a family in Houston.
While she is from a small town, population 46,114, Slaughter is “more country life (and) everything’s more green,” she said.
She arrived right as Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Houston.
My “first day when I was in America, they told me the hurricane was going to come,” she said. “I was afraid of it.”
Samantha O’Neal pointed out the house Nina was living flooded in the storm, and Nina lost many of her possessions.
Then Nina was told the day before she left that she was headed to small-town Louisiana.
“They just told me, ‘You have to go.’ They told me my family was from Louisiana but that was all,” she said.
Joshua O’Neal explained that the State Department oversees the exchange program and has strict rules about how long students can stay before or after and “they can’t be out of school for more than 10 days at a time or they have to go home,” he said. “With the schools flooded, she wasn’t going to be able to go to school for more than 10 days, so they had to find her someone else.”
The girls are different in many ways.
Lucia knew people who had been exchange students and wanted a chance to do the same.
Nina is the only one of her friends to be an exchange student but “I always wanted to come to America, and then had a chance to do this.”
The teens attend Slaughter Community Charter School with the rest of the family.
Nina found school here to be similar. “My school in Germany is bigger. But there are same activities, same subjects.”
Lucia said, “Everything is different. I am at bigger school, and here school is different than expected.”
Lucia is participating in powerlifting at school, and with a prompt from the O’Neals added, “I was on the homecoming court.”
Nina said she isn’t participating in a lot of activities at school but is taking physical education. She did receive a trophy for scholastic excellence in math.
The girls do share some experiences.
Nina, who was leaving for home on Jan. 2, said, “I’m happy to eat German food again, but the food here is really good.”
And Lucia simply said of the food, “I like it.” But the O’Neals pointed out that she has gained a little weight since eating a Louisiana diet.
While listing dishes they have enjoyed — corn and crab soup for Lucia and roast, potatoes and carrots for Nina — Lucia mentioned sweet tea.
Joshua O’Neal said, “Sweet tea, oh good lord, have mercy.”
Samantha O’Neal said she has had to go from making tea every few days to about two gallons a day. “They both love sweet tea, especially Nina,” she said.
She added that she lived in Australia for a year when she was 21, “And they don’t have sweet tea there, so everyone would think I was crazy when I would make it. But they would try it, and I wasn’t so crazy.”
Both girls said the politeness and friendliness of Americans in the South stood out when they got here.
Nina said, “People told me Americans are really friendly, but it I didn’t expect that they are really friendly. … In Germany, it’s not like that.”
Lucia said, “Something really impressive was everyone saying ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no, sir.’
Samantha O’Neal pointed out that both girls have picked up the habit of answering that way.
School dances made the list of new experiences. Both girls said their schools don’t host dances.
“That was something I wanted to experience,” Lucia said.
Nina pointed out the slow dances at homecoming as being a new experience.
And both girls said they hear some American music back home, but they have been introduced to country music since arriving in the States.
Lucia said, “I’ve heard some music from here. but I never heard country music before. I like it.”
Lucia said it was easy to make friends in Slaughter. “Because the school is small, so I know the people there. I thought it was going to be more difficult.”
Nina said, “I won’t say it was easy, but the school was very small and the people just came.”
Understanding English was also a problem for both.
“For me, it was a big deal to understand English," Lucia said.
She said understanding teachers was hard at first.
Samantha O’Neal said, “She had no idea what we were saying when she first got here. We speak very fast, we have a twang. She was just 'MMhmm.' ”
“She put words together but as far as having a smooth conversation, it was difficult at first," Joshua O’Neal said. "It’s gotten a lot better.”
Nina added, “At the beginning, I just knew the basic sentences and just a few words. The people talk really fast, and sometimes i just said yes (but) I really didn’t understand them. Now, the accent, it’s not going to change but the way we’re are talking has changed.”
The long holiday season starting with Halloween or Thanksgiving stood out to both girls.
Nina said, “We had Thanksgiving here, and we don’t have that at home. It was amazing day. It was like Christmas with food, with good food.”
“I knew something about it (Thanksgiving) because of the movies," Lucia said. "It was more or less the same. And then we went Black Friday shopping. It was crazy.”
Nina said of the shopping day, “People were crazy.”
For Lucia, it was the first time having a real tree, while Nina’s family usually has a real tree, but it is bought about a week from Christmas instead of a month before.
And since Lucia will be here for several more months, she will also get a taste of Mardi Gras.
Of that holiday, she said, “I didn’t know what that was. I heard something before coming.”
Lucia’s family will be traveling to the States about that time also. The program doesn’t allow family to visit until students have been in place for six months.
Now that the girls have been here for months, Samantha O’Neal said, “There’s not anything I would change about it. It’s been the best experience.
“They’ve been so helpful with the transitioning of going to a family of six to a family of seven then two more. They’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Joshua O’Neal said, “They are great big sisters.”
This was apparent in the girls’ interactions with the siblings. They even took turns with Andie when she was crying.
That doesn’t mean things are perfect. Samantha O’Neal pointed out that things get chaotic in the mornings. All the kids share one bathroom.
Despite the crowding, Allyson O’Neal said, “I thought it was cool, cause when they come, they can teach you stuff about their country and how it’s different from here.” She and Kenlei said they have learned a few words of German and Spanish.
Allyson described the languages, “In Germany, ... if you look at how they spell it, it looks so wrong. … and in Spain, one word here is like three words there.”
Joshua O’Neal pointed out his language lessons also.
“I have learned a few words. Poquito: very, very small amount of Spanish. I tried to learn some German, and it is extremely complicated. I can say yes or no. I tried to say Christmas and (Nina) laughed at me.”
And this introduction to teens from across the Atlantic led several members of the O’Neal family to say they want to travel to Europe. Samantha said a family trip is “absolutely” in the plans and Kenlei and Allyson, as well as neighbor Taylor Haydel, said they would like to be exchange students.
To learn more about hosting an exchange student, visit www.erdtshare.org.