To call Jerene Thomas a dedicated volunteer is to miss the point entirely.
Thomas, a longtime resident of Great Falls, has spent more than 45 years as a volunteer with AFS, an international student exchange program. In those years she has opened her home, her family and her heart to more than a dozen students from around the world, and even more have been under her watchful eye throughout Virginia.
And as a recipient of this year’s Galatti Award, given to the top three volunteers from around the world to reward their outstanding lifetime service, Thomas is being recognized by AFS International for all she’s done and continues to do for the organization and students around the world.
“She’s a wonderful person to talk with,” said Marlene Baker, director of marketing and communication for AFS International. “This is a testament to her dedication and hard work. It’s an amazing honor.”
“Jerene amazes me with her abilities,” said Kristen Vojik, regional director of AFS from Baltimore. “She’s extremely intelligent and passionate, an all-around caring human being. In her late 70s, early 80s, she taught herself how to use a computer in order to keep in touch with her AFS students.”
When her oldest daughter, Sherry, was about 14 and in Girl Scouts, there was a lot of international travel happening for Girl Scouts in the area.
“She wanted to host a student from another country, so that’s how we got involved with AFS,” Thomas said. The first student, a girl from France named Martine, served as a turning point in Thomas’ life.
“I always told her, if she had been a stinker, it would’ve saved me 45 years of work,” Thomas said with a laugh.
Thomas, her curly dark hair close on her forehead, looks like the kind of grandmother that everyone wants to have, quick with a laugh or a story or to offer some tea and cookies. When talking of her ‘kids,’ her eyes sparkle with fond memories and pride of those students that shared her home, either for a full school year or when having problems with a host family, who continue to have a special place in her heart many years later.
A MOTHER OF five children of her own, four girls and a boy, Thomas said she mostly had girls staying in her family’s home. “My son said he liked having a sister who didn’t argue with him,” she said. But regardless of where the students came from, male or female, the family welcomed their new brothers and sisters with open arms.
“I think all of my kids have come back to visit us,” Thomas said. “They bring their husbands and children. And it’s not just the long-term students, the ones that just stayed for a little while come to visit too.”
In fact, Martine’s daughter Capucine lived with Thomas while studying at George Mason University for a year and got engaged to her boyfriend from France while he visited her with the Thomases on vacation in the mountains.
While her own children were not directly involved in AFS - she said they all had other activities like music, sports and dance - the chance to travel the world was always available to them.
“They knew they could go abroad and visit their AFS sisters and brothers whenever they wanted,” she said. “When you share your home with a student, it’s an ongoing relationship. They’re a part of your family for life.”
Thomas credits her husband, Clayton, a chief scientist with the Air Force, for giving her the time and ability to play such an active role in AFS.
“My husband felt it was important for the children to have me at home, but he always supported me with my volunteer activities,” she said. “He loved the kids. He didn’t speak any foreign languages, but he could read and understand about 20 or 30 different ones. He could understand conversations … sometimes some of the girls would ask him for help with their homework, and he’d be able to help them,” she said.
When Clayton died a few years ago, Thomas didn’t have to change much in her life to fully commit to AFS.
Her list of duties and responsibilities with the organization are enough to make a person wonder how anyone could fill her place, should Thomas decided to retire: She is responsible for the well-being of all students and host families in Virginia, providing orientation for all incoming international and outgoing American students, securing school approval for students, finding qualified host families, securing volunteers to act as liaisons and “aunts and uncles” to spend time with students, planning events, attending regional conferences, maintaining contact with students and host families, and offering counseling for students when needed.
BUT THE WORK, the long hours, all was worth it for Thomas, who is currently looking for host families for the 2005-06 school year, she said with a smile and determined shake of her finger.
“I remember one Swedish boy who was darling. He didn’t live with us, but he wanted to teach us about the St. Lucia festival, where the oldest child in the family bakes a cake and wears a crown of candles and sings a song,” she said. “Our youngest daughter was 6 months old at the time, and he called my husband to see if it would be all right for him to come over early in the morning to do this for us. We were still staying up all night with the baby but he wanted to surprise us, but my husband told me about it.”
She looks up, eyes sparkling, with a laugh in her voice. “We were saved because there was a horrible snowstorm and he couldn’t do it,” she said. “So many kids have done such wonderful things for us.”
Her daughter Sherry, now Sherry Watkins, remembers the same holiday but with a different student.
“We had a Finnish sister who came downstairs with the wreath of candles on her head, and she made us a seven-layer cake and told us about St. Lucia,” she said.
The students who came to the United States brought not only their national traditions but their religious backgrounds as well.
“My French sister Martine was very religious, so I learned a lot about the Catholic religion from her,” Watkins said. “Her husband is a painter and gave us a lot of paintings. But when Martine was here, she brought pictures of France with her and told us stories about all the different places she’d been. That gave us a glimpse of France, not through a book, but through her stories and his paintings.”
THE LESSONS her natural children learned from their international siblings were far greater than anything from books, Thomas believes.
“Religion doesn’t matter when it comes to relationships with people,” she said. “Country doesn’t matter. Individual people matter.”
But it’s the mission of AFS that has kept Thomas involved for so many years.
“How can you ever feel anger or hatred toward someone you’ve lived with and loved? It seems to me that my children and grandchildren could never think in terms of hate or anger about any of the countries we’ve had students from,” she said, face full of sincerity. “You don’t feel bitter toward people who are a part of your life. The evil might eventually disappear if more people could be involved in each other’s lives. If there’s ever going to be world peace, I think these students are the ones who can make it happen.”
Winning the Galatti Award has special meaning for Thomas: She spent summers volunteering at the New York City office of AFS, where she worked with Stephan Galatti, one of the ambulance drivers from World War II, who started AFS after the war was over in order to promote understanding among countries.
“We shared a love of the children,” Thomas said. “He was a good man. He always liked to meet with the kids when they first came into America and again before they went home.”
There’s another reason Thomas is so proud to have won this award, beating at least 40 other contenders from countries around the world: In the 30 years this award has been given out, Jerene Thomas is only the seventh American to receive it.
When she travels to New York City to receive her award in May, Thomas plans to go with her daughter Sherry for the weekend and is hoping to bring her first foreign daughter, Martine, over from France for the event.
“My mom’s given her life’s blood to this organization,” Watkins said. “Her passion is AFS, she’s thrown herself into it. It’s so wonderful that they’re recognizing her.”
After so many years, Thomas still has a rapport with her ‘kids’ that seems to go beyond age.
“The kids just love her,” Watkins said. “You might think she wouldn’t have the rapport with younger people, but the students get that she genuinely likes young people.”
“JERENE CLAIMS to be a grandmother to over 1,000 students in her 45 years,” said Edde Skovdal, director of development, marketing and communications for AFS International.
“To be a volunteer for 45 years, it happens but not often,” Skovdal said. “She’s so committed, she’s an incredible person.”
“She’s got a great skill of never giving up,” Vojik said. “Because she believes in the good of every single student, she’ll work hard and fight for a student to get accepted into a school even if their English skills aren’t that great.”
Thomas’ expertise is well known and respected throughout the Southeast region, Vojik said. “Whenever there’s a debate or some conflict at a meeting, Jerene speaks and everyone listens. There’s a natural respect for her, she always helps put things in perspective.”
Eventually, Thomas will step down from her long list of responsibilities for AFS. But she has no intention of doing that anytime soon.
“As long as I can function effectively, I’ll stay involved,” she said. “I might retire after my 50th year, but I’m not sure. There’s a lot of stuff that can be done by e-mail,” she said with a laugh, adding that she’s still in touch with about 85 percent of her students.
“I have no plans to retire,” she said.
And when she does, AFS will be hard-pressed to find someone capable of filling her shoes.