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LeTourneau University international students find hospitality at crowded Thanksgiving table

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Nov. 22, 2012 at 10 p.m.


Six countries - Madagascar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, Kenya and the United States - were represented Thursday around one dining room table in Longview for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Matthew Henry, chief admissions officer at LeTourneau University, has been opening his home to LeTourneau students since 2007.

This year, 12 students joined him, his wife, Amy, and their two children, Paul and Keren, for a holiday feast.

"It started as an accident when a student that we knew really well needed a place to stay for a short period of time, and that kind of kicked off what we're doing here today," he said.

Helping that student led Henry and his wife on a mission to make students a home away from home.

"In the past 24 hours, as we've been hanging out together, they've been Skyping their parents to wish them a happy Thanksgiving in countries that don't even have Thanksgiving," Matthew Henry said. "They are so far away from home it's almost heartbreaking; but they've committed themselves to an education, and we feel blessed to be able to give them a little taste of family and home."

And a taste of home includes a home-cooked meal.

Students at the Henry home Thursday dined on traditional holiday fixings including turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and blueberry, apple and pumpkin pies.

Ashan Gunathilaka, from Sri Lanka, came to the U.S. in August and was anticipating his first Thanksgiving.

Gunathilaka, a freshman mechanical engineering major, was looking forward to dessert.

"I was involved in making pies yesterday, so I really want to try them," he said.

Gunathilaka said he was curious about the turkey because in Sri Lanka, the main course for every meal is rice - and he said that was the one dish he'd add to the Thanksgiving feast.

Benjamin Ito, a junior electrical engineering major from Japan, has had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner prepared by his American mother.

"We couldn't get turkey, but we had chicken," Ito said.

He too said rice would be the one dish he'd add to the table.

"We've already told them today was a no-rice day," Matthew Henry said with a laugh.

Mihary Ravelomanantsou, a junior physics and mechanical engineering major from Madagascar, prepared the green bean casserole - which is her favorite holiday dish.

"My first Thanksgiving was in this house two years ago. I remember thinking then, 'Whoa, there is really such a thing as Thanksgiving,' " she said.

The group settled in around the table after a prayer and after Henry and his wife gave thanks for the students.

"I'm majorly thankful for all of you," Matthew Henry told the group.

Amy Henry praised the students for helping to prepare the meal.

"I'm thankful for all your helping hands this year. I hardly had to do anything," she said.

The students thanked the Henrys for opening their home and providing good food.

"The Henrys really know how to open up their home for others really well, and I appreciate that," said Iowa native Kyle Sulek.

Although the dinner gives the students a sense of home, Matthew Henry said he and his family are the recipients of the day's biggest gift - the students' presence.

"It's like having the world in front of you," he said. "It's an amazing blessing to see them interact with each other and share and learn about each other's culture. These are amazingly intelligent students, and it's been an amazing experience to get to know them."

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