Family Reunited with Former Exchange Student After 37 Years

Luciana Tanajura Santamaria left her hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil at 14 years old to spend six months in America as a foreign exchange student. Luciana was sponsored by Youth for Understanding, a program that helped her fulfill her dream of visiting other countries as a student.

The Beginning

It was a cold December day in 1974 when Helen Ogle picked up Luciana from the bus stop to welcome her into the family for six months.

“I remember it snowed here the next day for the first time in 25 years,” Helen said. “And when she [Luciana] went back to Brazil, they had their first snow ever.”

Luciana always desired to become a foreign exchange student especially since her cousins had gone through the same program in Britain. Unfortunately, Britain refused to accept any more students due to her cousins causing mischief.

“They say ‘no more Brazilians,’ ” she said. “So I said I got to go somewhere — it will be the United States.”

Luciana’s mother was worried about sending her to the United States. Luciana wanted to stay longer than six months but her mother did not approve of the freedom Americans had and was worried her daughter would get entangled in it.

The Trip

Luciana was excited, but nervous about the trip. She was fearful her first night, but as she felt more and more welcome by the hospitable Ogle family, her fears subsided.

“It was scary at first when I got here. That first night I thought ‘What am I doing to myself?’ ” she said. “At the end of the six months, I didn’t want to go back.”

For Helen, hosting a foreign exchange student was something she always wanted yet continued to put off. She had six children of her own so one more would just add more happiness to the bunch.

Gene Ogle saw how passionate his wife Helen was about hosting a student.

“It was whatever she wanted,” he said. “It really didn’t matter since we always had a house full of children anyway.”

Pamela Walker, one of the six children, was close in age to Luciana. At first, the inconvenience of sharing a bedroom bothered Pamela. But, once the two girls bonded and discovered their similarities, it led to a lasting connection.

“I learned about her culture and her family, but more than that I learned about her. I realized we were the same at heart,” Pamela said. “We both liked to sit and giggle about cute guys.”

Luciana and Pamela laughed at the times they had together, gossiping about boys and giggling like young girls do. Pamela attempted to learn Luciana’s native language but Luciana decided to teach her bad words instead. The girls laughed about their special times as if they had just occurred.

The new friends became even closer as time passed. They participated in every activity and never separated whether it was swimming in the family pool, biking, skiing, or attending sports games. They also loved spending time in the family recreation room and playing pool, air hockey and table tennis.

Luciana mentioned acclimating to the food differences.

“We used to eat a lot of rice and beans and here in America you don’t,” she said. “I learned to like Mexican food which Helen liked and still does. I was really thin when I came here but really fat when I left.”

“No you were not,” Pamela added. “You did gain a little, but you were never fat.”

“She wasn’t here long enough. Now the other girl who came and stayed for a year gained something like 25 pounds,” Helen said “We lost contact with her so that may be my next project — to try to find her.”

As quickly as they came, the six months flew by and it was time for Luciana to return home to Brazil. The Ogle family would never be the same.

Eight years after she left, Luciana contacted Helen at the school where she worked, but they were never able to meet.

“She remembered the name of the school and contacted them and said ‘I’m looking for my mom and dad Ogle — my Texas parents.” Helen said.

Luciana became a medical doctor and used her conferences as opportunities to visit the Ogle family. But her attempts were never successful—until now.

The Reunion

Fifty-one year old Luciana arrived in Boston for a conference and scheduled to reunite with the Ogle family more than three decades after she left. Helen picked her up at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the family reunited amidst high emotions and happiness. They reminisced and picked up right where they left off.

Pamela’s sister, Kimberly, was 10 years old when Luciana came to visit. Though she was too young to appreciate the experience, she recalls enjoying learning about Luciana’s culture.

Luciana recalls memories of living in the Ogle’s house. Everything looked similar except for the removal of one living room wall. Luciana did not recognize the town, though.

“Main Street is extremely different,” she said. “The only thing I remember is the Dairy Queen, the bank, the post office and the small grocery store.”

Luciana enjoyed her time with the family she loved. The Ogles plan to visit Luciana in Brazil and spend the 2013 holiday season with her. The families vowed to never let that much time pass between seeing each other again.

“It sure doesn’t feel like it’s been 37 years,” Gene Ogle said. “I can’t believe she has kids that are 28 and 22.”