Every summer for the last four years, one Aiken family has gained a Spanish son through the exchange program Speak and Travel Summer Program.

Through Speak and Travel, Spanish students aged 13-17 spend a month in Aiken living with host families in the area.

Maria Pola, the founder and director of Speak and Travel, established the program after her own enriching exchange experiences, according to a news release about the program. For a year, when she was in high school in the late ’80s, she lived with a family in Augusta. Pola fell in love with her host family, which she still visits frequently.

“The exchange program opens the world to all the families and children involved because kids learn about our differences and similarities during the summer, when they can have a great time together,” Pola said. “These kids learn from each other through the daily interaction, and all the sudden, the host family will have extended family in Europe that they can visit in the future.”

Host families who participate in Speak and Travel are asked to treat their Spanish kids as if they were their own by providing a safe and welcoming environment for trust and friendship to develop between the student and the host family. Pola said host families support and make the visiting student feel like a part of the family  with the same privileges, responsibilities and obligations.

In turn, the Spanish kids share their own culture, customs and way of living.

“It is their obligation to become another family member and be helpful and respectful with their host family and obviously accept all the rules of the home,” Pola said. “But mainly, their obligation is to be a good ambassador of our European culture and make the experience enjoyable for everyone.”

This summer, Pola and her exchange families, American and Spanish alike, will celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary. To date, approximately 40 Spanish students have traveled to Aiken, one of the more popular locations of the Speak and Travel Summer Program, according to the release.

“Aiken has been one of our main locations since the beginning. The Aiken Community is friendly, generous and hospitable and very worldly and open-minded,” Pola said.

Pola currently is recruiting Aiken families to host students from Spain for four weeks this summer, June 28-July 25. For more information, email her at info@speakandtravel.es or call Nancy Hickson at 803-215-5525.

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.