Photo by Kim Ashford
A family valued from across the globe
So how about letting a group of unrelated young people use your home for a party while you are out of town? Or offering it up to newlyweds for their honeymoon?
Mary and Paul Bell have done just that—and a whole lot more.
In 1991, after coming to Baton Rouge to live, Mary met Virginia Grenier, executive director of the International Hospitality Foundation at LSU, and told her she and Paul would love to host international students.
“We have no children of our own and appreciate the International Hospitality Foundation for this opportunity,” said Mary. “Our lives are greatly enriched by knowing them.”
In twenty years, they have been the home for twenty-two students from thirteen countries. Right now they have nine “adopted” young adults from five foreign countries who are currently attending LSU. Every month Mary cooks for them, their dates and friends at their University Hills home a mile from campus.
They are the extended family of the Bells, who brag about them just as all proud parents do.
“They are not only our family, but they become a family to each other and often get together on campus,” said Mary of all those she and Paul welcome into their home—a gift that always seems to re-gift itself. “Right now, we have nine students representing Cambodia, Honduras, Iran, Nepal and Syria.”
Each month there’s a “family” meal, for which Mary prepares an entrée, salad, bread and dessert. Each of the other family members brings a dish, too.
The couple has a guest bedroom upstairs available when anyone wants to use it. “If they want a break from a roommate or need to get away for whatever reason, they are always welcome here. We had one student who got married and lived in very humble quarters, unable to go on a honeymoon at that time. Paul and I were going on vacation, so we offered our home for their honeymoon.”
When a former Chinese student and her husband were coming to visit, and the Bells had an out-of-town trip planned, they offered their house. “We already had a young Bulgarian friend housesitting our dog—a mixed lab named Simba—and it worked out fine. We told the students they could have a party for our Chinese ‘daughter’ whom the others wanted to see. They had a picture made of the party guests and Simba, and framed it for us.”
Mary displays a framed picture of a beautiful young woman from Mumbai, India, in her wedding attire. “I call her my daughter,” said Mary, speaking of Deepika Aris who married Glen Curole, a Cajun from Larose.
“Deepika came to us ten years ago and is a graduate in environmental science. She is now the mother of two beautiful boys. We lunch together frequently. Her parents visit once a year, and we do things together.”
Mary and Paul have been involved in community service their entire lives. In the 1960s, while attending Guilford, a Quaker college in North Carolina, Mary worked with the American Friends Service Committee, a part of the Society of Friends. In her junior and senior years she studied Spanish, and during the summer she was a participant at a work camp in a village in Mexico.
She opted after graduation to enter the Peace Corps and requested a Spanish-speaking country. After three months of intensive training, she was sent to Honduras from 1964-66. “Honduras was even poorer than Mexico,” she said. With CARE, a humanitarian organization, she took part in community development in Guinope, a mountain village.
She and Paul met and married in the nation’s capital, then in 1991 they moved to Baton Rouge where Paul taught agronomy at LSU.
In 2007, he entered into business for himself as an employment lawyer, and Mary has since retired. They continue to “adopt” international students and savor their get-togethers. “We’ve learned so much,” she said.
“They enjoy playing games,” says Mary of one of the regular activities at their gatherings. “One student from Nepal will say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about the most interesting thing that ever happened to us?’—every time he has another ice-breaker. And I cannot believe how familiar the Indians are with old movies, like Charlie Chaplin.”
“They are lovely young people, so bright, and so appreciative. Those we have had are top students and self-reliant. I find that they are unselfish and unpampered. They work hard. When a neighbor’s tree fell on our house during Hurricane Gus, an Iranian member of the family came and helped.”
The couple now has former and present students from Australia, Cambodia, Chile, China, France, Germany, Honduras, India, Iran, Nepal, South Africa, Syria, and the United Kingdom. With their multicultural, multilingual family, the Bells look forward to all get-togethers, especially holidays that include the Thanksgiving feast and a Christmas party just before the school break. “One year I gave each one a calendar, with photos of our get-togethers on each page. They loved it.”
The framed and unframed pictures, along with mementos brought from around the world, are those sentimental items that keep them feeling warmly loved.
“When they return to their respective countries, they like to bring something back to us. We don’t expect a thing but the thought is warming, and we have dined on divine Baklava cookies, received jewelry, vases, all of which are reminders of the wonderful times we’ve had.”