Nov. 24—Barbara Langton changed the way she and her husband C.J. celebrate Thanksgiving after a chance encounter with an international student in the 1980s.
Barbara had asked the Minnesota State University student if she had signed up for the Family Friendship Program.
The program is offered at some colleges and universities and is designed to assist international students during their adjustment period by connecting them with volunteers in the community.
Volunteers provide the support and opportunities needed for international students to succeed in a brand new place.
The Langtons have been volunteers of the program since 1986. Back then, they lived in Minneapolis and volunteered through the University of Minnesota.
When they moved to St. Clair, they began volunteering through MSU.
The student said no to Barbara's question, emphasizing that she would never again sign up for it.
Surprised by the outburst, Barbara asked why.
The student was part of the program when the American holiday rolled around.
The student told Barbara that she was excited for Thanksgiving after hearing all about it, but when Thanksgiving came, she sat alone in her dorm room crying.
The Friendship Family volunteers had neglected to invite her and her fellow international students in the program over to their homes to celebrate.
The student said she never felt lonelier.
"At that point, I thought, as long as we possibly can, we will invite all. And say, 'You may bring your friends,' because no one is going to sit in their room alone," Barbara said.
"That just made me very sad to think, as Americans, we sit and have all this food, and these students are sitting in their rooms or apartments and not enjoying it."
From then on, since 1988, the Langtons have been hosting international students at their house for Thanksgiving.
C.J. even acts as a chauffeur at times, driving back and forth from St. Clair and Mankato with a car full of students.
"I've met people from parts of the world I really knew very little about," he said about the whole experience.
In the beginning, there were only about four or five international students gathered around their dining room table.
Last year, there were 47.
When asked how she managed to find almost 50 international students to celebrate with, Barbara said it has never been a problem finding them, especially when each student that's invited asks to bring a friend.
"The problem is finding the room to put them," she said. "We don't have a big house. I would love to have a house that's so big that I could have so many more students every year. But that's not a reality at our age."
Instead, the couple in their 80s has rented out the St. Clair City Hall for Friday use.
"It'll be the day after Thanksgiving but the students don't care," Barbara said about their annual celebration. "They just care about the turkey."
Over the years, the Langtons have received turkeys from their friends Jim and Jane Buseth of Mankato.
The Buseths have always been supportive of what the Langtons do for international students. They often donate clothes and other supplies that the students may need.
After seeing how many students the Langtons hosted last year, the Buseths have given them two turkeys this time around to make sure every student gets enough to eat.
The Langton's have invited just over 30 students to celebrate the holiday with, but are expecting more to show.
"When it's time for dinner, there'll be a number that will call and ask if they can bring their friend with them," Barbara said.
"One called one year and said 'May I bring my friends?' and I said 'How many?' and he said there were six of them."
Along with the turkeys, the Langtons serve ham and Barbara makes her famous chicken dressing.
"But that chicken is halal," she said. "I buy halal chicken for the students that can't eat anything but halal."
The Arabic word translates to "permissible" in English. Halal food adheres to Islamic law as defined in the Quran.
MSU junior Meklit Shiferaw said she's most excited for Barbara's homemade pecan pie.
Shiferaw is an international student hailing from Ethiopia and has been celebrating Thanksgiving with the Langtons for the past two years.
This year, she and a handful of other international students will be arriving earlier in the day to help the Langtons set up.
After everything the Langtons have done for them, Shiferaw said she's happy to lend a hand whenever she can.
"They're really awesome. I'm not the only student they've helped. They have helped a lot of students," she said.
"They're well known at MSU. A lot of international students know the Langtons. They're a blessing for us, and we're really lucky to have them."
The Langtons have two grown kids of their own, but Barbara said it feels like they have adopted many throughout the years.
"We have had a lot of fun through the years in some of the things that we have gotten to do with them," she said.
As for Shiferaw, she's been able to find a home away from home, and that's something she said she's grateful for this Thanksgiving.
"It feels like I'm not away from home, even though I'm miles away," she said. "I feel like I have a second family here. It's comfortable, safe and it feels really nice to have."