Mom opens home to students


Xiaoyu "Jamie" Wu/The Chart

Linda Keifer, in the middle, with her international daughters.

The smell of international cuisine fills the kitchen as laughter and a diversity of languages rises from the living room. Linda Keifer sits in an overstuffed recliner watching the happenings of the night with a simple smile on her face. It is a typical Sunday night in her home.

Keifer, a Webb City resident, has offered hospitality to Missouri Southern international students for nine years, providing “a little bit of everything” in this home away from home.

After plans to live in Mexico fell through, Keifer and her husband, Jerry, sought an alternative purpose,  finding opportunities to open their home to international students.

“It started with a few, and then they invited their friends,” Keifer said. “This is what God wanted us to do. The money is always there; God always provides. We gain a lot of pleasure and a lot of joy, [we] just have love for the kids.”

“We celebrate their birthdays, we go on hikes; if they need to go to the mall or Wal-Mart we take them … They come over on Sundays and we fix dinner for them,” Keifer said. “We have a lot of fun doing it.”

“It’s family Sunday: to eat, relax, listen to each other, to talk about worries, hopes, dreams and wishes. They are sharing the American tradition and the international students [are] sharing theirs as well,” said Stephanie Kiessling, former exchange student from Germany.

It’s not just a cultural exchange, though. It’s also about belonging in a foreign country.

“When I speak to them, I feel like I’m talking to a genuine mother and father. They make me feel appreciated, welcomed, and at home,” said Lei Lei, sophomore human resource major, of China.

Mio Aoki, former exchange student from Japan, describes being introduced to the Keifers’ acquaintances as their daughter.

“When I heard that word, I felt really happy,” Aoki said.

Many international students feel that Southern is fortunate to have a family like the Keifers.

“I think Linda is one amazing American mom to international students. Linda has so much love, there is enough for everyone,” said Trish Udell, friendship family coordinator at Southern. “She is always willing to serve in whatever way she can.”

Even Keifer’s biological daughter, Elizabeth Keifer-Clark, supports her  mother’s generosity.

“I think it’s a great thing. She has a huge heart and has lots of love to go around … I’m very proud of my mom,” she said.

Few would guess this happy, fun-loving woman came from a broken home.

“My dad beat us a lot, and the only comfort I would get after a beating was to soak in a hot bath,” Keifer said. “I would say, ‘I don’t know if you’re [God] real, because my dad says you’re not real, but please send someone who would love me.”

Even if she could endure the physical abuse, she could not escape the lies that would escalate into a long-term battle with low self-esteem. Her father regularly degraded her with such words as “worthless,” “ugly” and “useless,” saying she would never and could never be loved.

Only after Keifer met her husband and his family did her self-perception change.

“One night when I met my husband, Jerry, who is a Christian, I met God through him. [Jerry] told me I was beautiful, that I was worth something … I could not understand love because I had never experienced love before,” Keifer said. “[His family] showed me love and care.”

Keifer attributes her love for hosting international students to her negative past, as well as to the positive influence she received during her married life.

“Even though most [international students] don’t come from abusive homes, they’re lonely, ” Keifer said. “God uses bad for good. Even though it was a miserable time, I think that really helped me to have more love.”

Keifer and her husband travelled to Asia last summer to visit their host children. This way they were able to experience others’ cultures so they could better understand their guest children.

“ The Lord really opened our eyes up to a few things — to be more sensitive to [international students] feelings and needs,” Keifer said. “We connected and made a bond with them as they invited us into their homes.”

Keifer and her husband describe the relationship between international students and their families as very close. Even though the students continue to call Keifer mom, their parents welcome this endearment with gratitude for the love she gives their children.

“Everywhere we left, we left families. They weren’t [just] families of the international kids; they had become our families [too]. When we left, we had an emptiness in our hearts,” Keifer said.

“I have learned [from Keifer] you never say ‘goodbye,’ you just say, ‘see you later,’” Kiessling said.

Keifer was diagnosed with colon cancer a couple of months ago, but she never forgets her international children. It’s just one of the many things that make international students call her the greatest American mom.

Information about Linda Keifer’s benefit dinner: Nov. 16, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Clubhouse in Webb City. Tickets are $5 in advance and will be on sale at KOAM-TV station. Dinner includes chili, dessert and drink. All proceeds from the dinner and silent auction go to help with the cost of Keifer’s treatment.