It truly has been the experience of a lifetime for Mara Heidelbach. Last August as she made her journey from Germany to America as a World Heritage exchange student, Heidelbach wasn't quite sure what to expect. There was a certain amount of apprehension. Coming to a new country, meeting her host family, going to a new school and making friends.

It truly has been the experience of a lifetime for Mara Heidelbach. Last August as she made her journey from Germany to America as a World Heritage exchange student, Heidelbach wasn’t quite sure what to expect. There was a certain amount of apprehension. Coming to a new country, meeting her host family, going to a new school and making friends.

Fast forward to now and Heidelbach doesn’t know where the time went.

“I started my exchange year in August and cannot realize it is almost over. I only have about three months left in my American home,” Heidelbach said. “Then I will go back to Germany and go on with living my ‘normal’ life. This year was definitely the best year of my life and I’m so glad that I decided to be an exchange student. A year ago I thought about what a stupid decision I made but now I feel that it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

There are no regrets, she said. Amazing people, friends who she feels certain will be lifelong and so many new experiences have totally changed her life and when she returns home, Heidelbach knows she isn’t the same young woman who arrived last summer.

“All of the people I met were responsible for my fantastic experience abroad,” she said. “ I want to thank all of them that made my year special.”

Enthusiastic is a good word to describe Heidelbach, as she talks about her American experiences, especially when she talks about her host family. There’s so many to thank for her incredible journey, she said.

“My biggest thank you goes to my family. Kimberly and Rod, you were the best new parents I could have wished for. From the moment we met you were always there for me and treated me like your own daughter,” she said. “We got to know each other really quickly and could laugh about everything together. You are wonderful parents and I am so thankful for everything you have done for me. Chloe, my little sister, you are the best little sister and you will always have a special place in my heart.”

Heidelbach said she will miss their adventures to Taco Bell and discussions about teachers.

As a family, she said they made her feel like she was at home, even though she was on the other side of the world. She feels an affection and love for them that she will take back to Germany with her, knowing they will always be family.

For her host family, Chloe, Kimberly and Ron Lekey, the feeling is mutual. Heidelbach has been a joy to have in their home, Kimberly said. They welcomed her to their home in Laurie with open arms.

Hosting a foreign exchange was a new experience for the Lekey family. Kimberly saw an article in the newspaper and thought it would be something new and fun. The parents of four children, with only Chloe still living at home, the timing was good.

Kimberly is the self-appointed taxi driver. Ron is a retired U. S. Air Force colonel and works for Boeing.

Watching Heidelbach experience American culture and experiences made it all worthwhile. They created a bucket list and have made sure Heidelbach had a variety of experiences to remember when she returns home. Everything from shopping for a prom dress to visiting the St. Louis Arch and taking in a Cardinals game. There’s still much to do, Kimberly said.

As their time together draws to an end, Kimberly said she encourages other families to reach out and become hosts.

Heidelbach said she was impressed with how open and helpful Americans are. And as she counts down the weeks to her departure, she said there are so many people she is grateful to have met and has many to thank for the “best year ever.”

The tone of her stay was set by area representative for the exchange program, Jen Peebles, who has been an influence on Heidelbach. Peebles has stayed in touch with the young woman the entire time.

Heidelbach said Peeples was always there for her, helped whenever she could and was dedicated to making her stay a success.

“I will miss our shopping trips, lunches and just our laughing together,” she said. Hedielabch said she appreciated Peebles always being cheerful and open.

Her time at Camdenton High School where she was a senior always influenced her. She said she will miss her teachers, especially Mr. Roettgen and Mrs. Whittaker, who helped her in every difficult situation she faced. Heidelbach said all the teachers at Camdenton have been great. But, like all students, there are always a few that stand out as making a difference in their lives.

“They are amazing people,” she said. “Coach McCane, is the best swim coach.”

One of her best memories will be as a member of the swim team. Heidelbach said the teachers showed her that German views are very different from the Americans‘ and helped her to understand them. She is grateful for all the time and kindness she experienced at school, right down to Loree, the cheerful bus driver that Heidelbach said was always on time and had a smile on her face.

Although she is from Germany, Heidelbach is very much a typical teenager when it comes to her friends. Sleepovers and learning calculus over lunch, the cultural differences didn’t get in the way, especially with her two best friends, Chloe and Katie.

To all her friends, Hedielbach said she is grateful for the awesome memories she will take home.

“I’m so thankful for all the little things over the past year, that maybe didn’t seem very special at the time, but that have made my time in America unforgettable,” Heidelbach said. “I definitely had the best year ever and the memories I made in Missouri will always be a part of my life and of what made me who I am now.

Heidelbach said she recommends the experience to students and families who want to live the best year of their lives.

“It is a unique adventure. You meet new people, learn about a new country and live a different life. And you will never know how exciting it is until you try it,” she said.

If you are interested in becoming an exchange student, hosting an exchange student, or if you have any questions, contact the area representative Jen Peebles at 417-353-2158 or visit https://www.world-heritage.org/.