These folks can guide college-age MKs through their cultural confusion
October 2017

By Josie Oldenburg — After living life alongside other missionary kids at Black Forest Academy in Germany, 18-year-old college student Michele Phoenix hated Wheaton, Illinois.

But Michele loved Barb.

“Barb would pick me up every week under the guise of cleaning house for her,” Michele said. “I would clean for maybe 90 minutes, and then I would spend the rest of the day there. She was not an MK — she hadn’t even traveled internationally — but she became the source of comfort and wisdom and company and family to me.”

After 20 years spent teaching missionary kids at Black Forest Academy, writer and MK advocate Michele Phoenix loves Wheaton. And from her home there, she’s launched a ministry to help college-age MKs find Barbs of their own. 

The MK Harbor Project

The Harbor Project connects MKs ages 17-24 with people who want to support them as they transition to a new country. 

boots in the snow

“That’s the age range where MKs are coming off the field. They’re dealing with grief, they’re dealing with transition, they’re clueless a lot of times about their new surroundings, and they’re desperate for a listening ear,” Michele said.

And sometimes they’re also desperate for practical help.

“One MK I know went to college in New York and didn’t realize how bitterly, brutally cold it was going to be,” Michele said. “He didn’t have the heart to ask his parents for boots, so he spent his entire first winter with sneakers that were wrapped in duct tape. He needed someone to come alongside him and say, ‘Hey, let’s take you to Walmart and pick you up some boots so you can make it through the winter.’”

Becoming a Harbor

So far, more than 150 families have signed up to be MK Harbors, mostly in North America, but also in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.

Michele asks that potential MK Harbors read her article, “Ten ‘obvious’ things TCKs might not know,” and submit an application, including two references. Harbors don’t have to have international travel or cross-cultural ministry experience. (After all, Barb didn’t!)

“MKs really need cultural coaches for the practical, nitty-gritty stuff — things that seem obvious to Americans, but that third-culture kids don’t necessarily know,” Michele said. “The cultural coaches need to be people who are in authentic relationship with them. MKs need somebody who will ask them questions about how they’re doing and who they were before they came back to this country.”

Choosing a Harbor

MKs choose their own Harbors. They can use this fun, interactive map to read short bios of all the Harbors in their area, then e-mail Michele, who can connect them with the Harbor they’ve picked. 

Michele makes it a point to tell the MKs that they have full freedom to stop connecting with the Harbor if they feel at all uncomfortable or if it’s just not a great match.

“MKs often feel obligated to be friendly to everybody and to follow through on initiated contacts, so we need to make it clear,” Michele said. “If these people aren’t what you’re looking for, you can stop communicating with them.”

Though Michele would like to add more Harbor families, drawing MKs to the program is her current challenge.

“Part of the MK projection of identity is that we don’t need any help, so it takes a certain amount of humility (or humiliation, some might say) to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to put gas in my car,’ or ‘Hey, I don’t know how to drive.’ We need to make asking for help more natural for MKs,” Michele said. “Having a hard time repatriating to your passport culture isn’t a flaw, it’s a consequence of being multicultural, of never having lived here before. MKs need to make that switch in their minds.”

Click here to visit the MK Harbor home page, where you can sign up to become a Harbor, or find a Harbor to meet with in your area.

Banner image: The MK Harbor map shows people willing to be Harbors across the globe.

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Josie Oldenburg
Josie and her family served in Ukraine for 12 years before she joined the SEND US Communications Team.