By Olivia Brown and Bella Slosberg
After both the Upper and Lower campuses closed due to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, government orders told people to return to their homes, shut their doors, and to not let anyone in.
But for several OVS families, this news instead meant that now more than ever was not a time to close themselves off from the community, but rather a time to open their homes to those in the community who needed it most.
When the school announced that its campuses would close to reduce the spread of the virus, several Lower Campus families realized that some students would be unable to return home indefinitely, so they offered to have those students stay in their homes with them as long as they needed.
Dr. Maria Halvorson and Dr. Kooros Samadzadeh decided to take in sixth-grader Peter Wang, who lives in Chengdu, China and is friends with their son, Arya.
Over the February winter break, Dr. Halvorson and Dr. Samadzedeh offered to take him in with open arms when the COVID-19 outbreak was first labeled an epidemic in China. But after the virus became more widespread and schools across the United States closed, the family welcomed him back while OVS transitioned to remote learning during this period. Peter was able to come back to familiar faces alongside his good friend.
“We all had a great time the last time he stayed with us so it was just sort of natural that he stays with us if he and his parents decide that it was not safe for him to go back home,” said Dr. Halvorson.
Alongside Dr. Halvorson and Dr. Samadzedeh taking a middle school resident, Bob Larkin and Kimberly Cluff, parents to seventh-grader Jake Larkin and sophomore CatieJo Larkin, took in Kyria Ngankoy, an eighth-grader at Lower.
The Larkins were excited to welcome Kyria into their home, and they cleared out their home office to convert it to a temporary bedroom. Because she was separated from her mom and little brother during this time, Kyria was glad that she was welcomed into the Larkin household while transitioning to online classes.
“It has been good to know that there are two other students who are doing the same thing as me,” said Kyria. “I feel more comfortable and we all know what each other is going through. At first, it was hard to adjust on top of being in a new house but I feel pretty good here.”
But the homestay experience goes beyond just living in another house for a few weeks and doing school work. Ms. Larkin made sure that her kids were being creatively active during the remote learning period.
“One of the benefits of being in a community like Ojai is that even when the world outside seems to be in free fall, we have our little town that feels very safe,” she said. “This is a big part of why we are pretty calm and we are taking it day by day while trying to think of things to do that not only keep us busy but also feel good.”
Making recipes, dyeing hair, taking walks, and gardening were just a few activities that CatieJo, Jake, and Kyria did to pass time. The Larkins made the best out of their situation and tried to remain positive during a stressful time.
For some residents, the home stays lasted a few weeks while families navigated travel restrictions and other logistics to bring their children home. But others remain in California with OVS families.
Eighth grader Alex Jia, whose home is in Shanghai, China, is staying with his classmate and good friend Eli Roston, who has been a resident at Lower Campus for five years, starting in fourth grade.
Eli stays with his grandparents, Micheal and Ko Roston, in San Diego during breaks and most vacations.
Last summer Eli was invited to go to Shanghai and stay with Alex, and he thoroughly enjoyed his time there. To return the favor, the Rostons invited Alex to stay with them during Thanksgiving break. Alex said yes and had a blast.
So as soon as the Rostons heard that Alex wouldn’t be able to return home due to the Coronavirus, they immediately welcomed him into theirs with open arms.
“When we found out that Alex couldn’t go home, it was a natural thing for us to say ‘hey, bring Alex here,’” Mr. Roston said.
They have established a schedule to make things go smoothly and add a sense of security in these hectic times.
“The boys have their breakfast before school and then when they are all done with their online schooling, Alex practices the piano for an hour and Eli reads a book of his choice,” Mr. Roston said. “After that, they come down to ‘Papa Mike’s’ office and gym, and I become their personal fitness trainer.”
After fitness hour, the boys have free time to relax and then later in the evening they have family dinners and watch movies or play board games. They even have a weekly poker tournament.
To the Rostons, Alex — who started at the Lower Campus last year as a seventh grader — is another member of the family and they are happy to be able to keep him safe in these rough times. The Rostons are planning to have Alex stay with them until he is able to return home to China in June.
“Alex is like my second grandson,” Mr. Roston said. “We treat him the same as Eli and really have just become so fond of him.”
During his stay at the Halvorson-Samadzedeh household, Peter brought a part of his culture to Ojai.
“We have been talking to Peter about things that he misses from home and one of the things he said was food,” Dr. Halvorson explained. “We cooked dumplings from his grandmother’s recipe while Arya made pixie ice cream. It was super fun and made everybody happy to have a good dinner.”
Combining their favorite elements of home through food allowed Peter, Arya, Dr. Halvorson, and Dr. Samadzedeh to connect even further.
To these families, the idea of community is strong, and even though this is a challenging time for not only the nation but the entire world, the OVS community continues to spread love and joy.
“It is super important that people stay home as much as they can as well as not being around people in order to keep our community healthy,” said Dr. Halvorson. “It is also important to keep our minds healthy like going outside, going for a walk, or even meditating. This is how we beat the virus.”