Another Day, Another Destiny

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Kris Doneff and her husband, Nick, have served as a host family for exchange students for most of their marriage. Her own high school experience had influenced their direction as a married couple. “I was an exchange student in 1967 to Tokyo,” she recalls. “About two years after we got married, we just knelt down and gave our lives to God and said, ‘use us as you want.’ And it’s never been the same since.”

That commitment had led the Doneffs on an extraordinary trajectory for more than 20 years before their paths intersected with Amicus. They had learned about Young Life’s student exchange program — which draws its name from the Latin word for “friend” — through their son, a volunteer leader in Colorado. In the fall of 2012, the Doneffs welcomed a young man named Kuba into their home, and a new chapter of their commitment began to unfold.

Who am I?

Jakub “Kuba” Janas came from Poznan, one of the largest cities in Poland. He arrived wearing a black jacket and chains, his long hair pinned behind his head and a small chip on his shoulder. He had left a close-knit family and a girlfriend back home, and the separation immediately took its toll. “We knew right away this young man was very homesick,” said Doneff.

Amicus prompts exchange students to immerse themselves in the experience of a new family. For a full school year, it means minimal contact with friends and family back home. The goals involve creating not just a place for an exchange student to weather his or her stay, but a home and a relationship based on unconditional love. The Doneffs have even had their exchange students refer to them as “Mom and Dad” in an effort to form a greater relational bond. Kuba, however, kept to himself.

A certain acclimation period is expected at the beginning, but Kuba resisted cutting ties to home. “It was a real dilemma to get him to invest in the experience,” Doneff said. When guests came over to visit, Kuba stayed in his room. He even began sneaking quiet conversations with his girlfriend via Skype.

Two activities, however, did earn his vested interest: the movies and football.

His school had a small football team and the coach always welcomed new players. “Kuba just took right to it,” Doneff said. But as the school year progressed, Kuba succumbed to a number of academic challenges. He failed to turn in assignments on time, grieved a few of his teachers and was eventually kicked out of a class.

“That brought everything to a head,” said Doneff. Four months in, Kuba was done. “I am not exchange student material,” he told Doneff. “I want to go home.”

The Doneffs contacted their Amicus representative to discuss options. Given the tumult of his stay so far, departure seemed like the best solution. In the meantime, Doneff and Kuba found time to take in one more trip to the movies on President’s Day weekend to catch a showing of Les Miserables. The experience had profound implications for everyone.

One day more

Millions know the story: after 19 years of hard labor, prisoner Jean Valjean receives his parole. After seeking shelter from a parish priest, Valjean makes off with the priest’s silver. Later caught by the authorities, he’s returned to the parish where the priest not only reprieves Valjean, but presents him with two silver candlesticks worth more than what he had already taken. This act of mercy turns Valjean from a vengeful vagabond to a man fully committed to the manner of the Gospel.

The moment affected Kuba in surprising ways. Since he had come from a faith background, Doneff found she was able to discuss the implications of the scene with ease. “He grasped it right away,” she said. “He understood that that was the moment in which Jean Valjean turned around and changed his life to follow God and become a good man.”

Preparations for Kuba’s departure had entered their final phase. Two hours after seeing the film, however, Kuba came to Doneff and completely repented. “I am making the biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “This is all my fault.”

Doneff, who is trained in family and relief counseling, knew his change of heart was genuine. “It was real,” she said. “I can generally detect deception or manipulation, and there was none of that there.”

If Kuba was going to stay, he was going to have to follow the rules. Together with Amicus, a new contract between Kuba and his host family was created, one that tightened his responsibility to invest in the experience. “It was a disciplined second chance. They had set a standard for him, and he had to follow it.”

The family celebrated Kuba’s second chance four days later. During the modest festivities, the Doneffs bequeathed a small gift to their prodigal — a pair of silver candlesticks.

He met the challenge of his new contract with renewed vigor. “I saw God put His hand on that kid’s body, and turn him 180,” Doneff said. Kuba cut his hair and ditched his chains. He even suspended conversations with his girlfriend back home. Doneff recalls, “He told her, ‘You have to let me finish this.’”

At school, he began completing assignments and turning them in on time. “Once he started studying he was on the Dean’s List the next quarter,” Doneff said. “He thought that was kind of cool.”

Bring Him home

As the school year drew to a close, Kuba received audacious encouragement from the people he met. They told him he would change the world when he returned home, Doneff said, and the pressure overwhelmed him. Doneff tried to encourage him. “You will do whatever God has built you to do,” she told him.

Kuba finished the year and returned to Poland in May of 2013. He still connects with the Doneffs once a month over Skype. “He’s very loyal, and very steady, and very strong in his faith,” Doneff said.

As for changing the world, Kuba contacted the Doneffs last Christmas morning to tell them how it was going. “He said, ‘Guess what, Mom: Young Life is going to have a Young Life camp in the summer in Poland, and I am going to be one of those leaders.’” Doneff reports that his girlfriend has gotten involved with Young Life as well. “This is the girl he wants to marry,” she said. “They’re in it together.”

Doneff maintains that the support structure Amicus offered was vital to Kuba’s redemptive stay. “It was wonderful to have that backup, that support,” she said. “I would never work with another organization besides Amicus.”

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