As a busy wife and mother, healthcare strategist, and the vice president of the Ann Arbor School Board, Christine Stead wasn’t looking for another role to fill when she was asked to take in a hockey-playing teenager from St. Louis for the school year.
But Stead says that providing a home for Pioneer junior Joseph Woll, 16, has been better than she could have imagined.
“It’s been a truly amazing experience for us,” said Stead, who says she fell in love with Joe and his family from the first time they met on FaceTime. “It’s added so much more to our lives than I can even articulate.”
Joseph is one of the 44 teenage boys from across the country now living with a host family in the Ann Arbor area while training with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and competing at the Cube, or traveling to games against a USHL or college hockey opponent or even to an international event. All attend Pioneer High School.
Host families—called billets—are asked to commit to two years.
Defenseman Michael Campoli lives with Pioneer math teacher Michele Macke and her husband, Eric, about a mile west of the Cube. He will live with the Mackes again next year and then play hockey for Boston College.
Michael, a Montreal native who has been playing hockey since he was four or five, was a bit uncomfortable about the thought of living away from his home for the first time.
“But the Mackes made it really easy and real comfortable here, so it was a good transition,” he said.
This is the second time the Mackes have been billet families. Macke said she appreciates the sacrifices the players’ families make for their sons to fulfill their dreams.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Macke, the mother of two daughters, 25 and 23. “I wouldn’t want some stranger to take my kid for two years. It shows you how committed they are to helping their sons.”
The NTDP is composed of two squads—the U.S. National Under-17 and Under-18. Now in its nineteenth season, the goal of the program is to prepare student athletes for participation on U.S. National teams, and for a future in hockey. Many have gone on to play in the National Hockey League. In the 2013-2014 season, in fact, 69 NTDP players played for 26 NHL teams.
The NTDP is always looking for more host families in Ann Arbor, said Lisa Vollmers, a former AAPS teacher who is now the academic mentor for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and the NCAA liaison coordinator for AAPS.
Vollmers said matches are carefully made so the right boy is housed with the right family, which often means an empty nester or a young family with an extra room.
Families answer lengthy questionnaires and go through background checks in the process of finding the best fit.
NTDP’s benefits to the Ann Arbor area extend well beyond amazing hockey, said Vollmers.
“The players touch the lives of their classmates, teachers, and many members of the greater Ann Arbor community as they introduce us to their diverse backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “There is truly an amazing exchange that takes place every day between the boys—and their parents—and the people with which they interact.”
John Birko, lead teacher in the district’s homebuilding program, says he wasn’t prepared for how attached he would get to the two student athletes who live with him and his wife, Sue.
Birko said that as a longtime high school sports coach and high school/college educator, he takes satisfaction watching young people grow up confident and secure with strong values.
“I also moved away from home for high school, so I have some experience and understanding of what the guys have to go through living away from home and going to an unfamiliar school system,” said Birko, who attended Saints Peter and Paul High School Seminary in Ohio. “I can appreciate the great parts and the limitations of the situation for them and maybe help them through a bit. They are forced to mature much quicker because they have to make a lot of decisions with little to no counsel and then work with the consequences.”
“Our goal was to try to keep them warm, safe, well fed and secure,” he said, noting how fortunate he feels to host two terrific young men who are supported by great families. “USA Hockey has given us easy communication channels and clear direction to guide the guys in the right direction.”
Stead says the timing was right to welcome Joseph, a high-achieving student who has been a great role model for her own sports-loving sons, Aidan, 14, who plays soccer and baseball, and Conleth, 12, who prefers hockey.
And though her husband, Jim, was on the fence about it at first, he’s now happy he has someone in the family to play golf with this spring.
In fact, hosting a student has motivated the family to kick it up a notch, Stead said.
“Joe’s really helped us stay committed to really good food and a healthy lifestyle; to good academics and the discipline around those things,” said Stead, who recently helped develop the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, which emphasizes nutrition. “He’s also showing my other two what it takes to do well at that level.”
Stead and Joseph’s mother text or talk nearly every day and have become close friends.
She strongly encourages other families to consider becoming billets.
“These kids are very dedicated; they have a lot of pressure on them, yet they have a lot of support at the same time,” she said. “They have a lot to lose, and so they are very committed to doing well. Especially if you have teenagers or kids in your house, it’s a great modeling opportunity that’s peer-driven almost, and that’s different from any parent-kid dynamic.”
Joseph says he’s become a member of the Stead family, and they’ve become a part of his.
Joseph has been offered many full-ride hockey scholarships, including one from the University of Michigan. The Steads, of course, quietly hope he chooses to stay close to his home away from home.
“We want Joseph to end up where he has the best fit and the brightest future,” said Stead. “We would love for him to be a Wolverine, but we know he has to pick the one best for him.”
Anyone interested in housing a player should call 734-327-9251, extension 323, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.