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Exchange student repays Palmerton community

Like anyone spending a large chunk of time in a foreign country, Joel Vieten arrived in the United States last year nervous about what his future would hold.

Now, as the German exchange student wraps up his time at Palmerton Area High School, he parlayed his capstone leadership project into an opportunity to give back to a district and community that welcomed him with open arms.

Vieten presented Palmerton officials on Thursday afternoon with items collected as part of a backpack program he organized to make sure all students had the supplies they need when the 2023-24 school year kicks off in the fall. Items within the donation included backpacks, lunch boxes, index cards, notebooks and much more.

“I wanted to give something back to my community,” Vieten said. “To me this was a better opportunity than cleaning up a park or picking up trash. There are students here who can use these items but might not be able to go get them.”

Amy Lane, local representative for the non-profit ASSE International, the organization tasked with overseeing Vieten during his time in the United States, described him as an “exceptional young man.”

While attending high school, Vieten stayed with Tracy and Joe Gostonyi, who Lane called the definition of a perfect host family.

“They have taken him in as volunteers and were only asked to give him a safe and loving home, with a bed, and meals,” she said. “They never imagined or believed me when I told them this student would become a permanent fixture in their lives and that they would love him like their own children.”

With less than a month to go until they say goodbye, Tracy fought back tears Thursday describing Joel’s impact on their family.

“He’s been such a joy,” she said. “All of Palmerton, not just the school, has treated him so well. If you have the room, I encourage anyone thinking of hosting an exchange student to do it.”

Vieten got the full Bomber experience, attending events such as Palmerton’s Mini-THON and prom. A photo of his “promposal” in the local Subway even attracted the attention of the sandwich chain’s corporate offices, who hope to use it in advertising campaigns.

“I have loved my time at the school,” Vieten said. “The teacher-student relationship here is really special. And of course I’m thankful for all the friends I’ve made.”

High School Principal Paula Husar said the Palmerton student body never hesitated to make Vieten one of their own.

“Our kids have totally opened up their arms,” Husar said. “There have really been no barriers and you wouldn’t necessarily expect that in a small town. But our students don’t think small here. They found out we are having three exchange students next year and they are super excited.”

The experience made such an impact on the Gostonyi family, they already signed on to host another exchange student from Hungary.

“Joel fit perfectly in with our family and we just thought it would be wonderful to do this again,” Joe said. “My family is from Hungary so that will be really special. We’re going to miss Joel though. This has been a wonderful experience.”

Outside of school, Vieten spent time volunteering at his host family’s church, Bethany Wesleyan in Cherryville. He has assisted in youth group, Sunday school, and the Christmas play. Additionally, he spent several hours volunteering at the Christian Action Council of Palmerton Area Churches collecting and distributing food to those in need.

Earlier this month, Vieten made a trip to Harrisburg, where he met with state Sen. Dave Argall and state Rep. Doyle Heffley in the capitol.

“I absolutely loved it here and I would definitely do this again,” he said.

Joel Vieten, a German exchange student, hands a backpack to Palmerton Area High School Principal Paula Husar on Thursday. The backpack is one of many items Vieten collected to donate to the district for students who may need them in the future. Vieten is wrapping up his year at the high school as part of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS