Project houses international students

The home of Drew Wells, executive director of The Doorstep Project, and his family.

By Keith Hernandez

DeKALB — For six years, a DeKalb man has kept his door open for more than 100 international NIU students who needed a place to stay and a hot meal with friendly conversation.

Some only needed a room for one night. Others stayed for years, going so far as calling Drew Wells, his wife and his daughter family.

Fewer than 20 students have stayed for more than a month at a time; however, more students have made use of the extra couches and guest room when they needed a place to sleep for a night or two free of charge, Wells said. He would also temporarily offer the rooms for-rent if they weren’t occupied at the time.

Wells is the executive director of the Doorstep Project, a nonprofit organization based out of his DeKalb home that provides resources and the kind of informal interaction he said is vital for international travelers new to the United States. Wells and his wife, Tracie, run the day-to-day operation of the organization, but students and community members occasionally volunteer to host events or give rides. Through the Doorstep Project, Wells provides transportation, many times to and from the airport, provides help acquiring furniture, dinner parties, rooms to stay in and a passion for making everyone feel welcome.

The first thing a guest may notice from the door of Wells’s baby blue house, aside from a rambunctious 4-year-old Australian Shepherd named Porter, is a framed sign that reads, “A smile is the same in any language.” The foyer is flanked by photos and gifts from students he has hosted.

They came from all over — Romania, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Venezuela, India, Pakistan and more.

“We have been blessed as much as we’ve blessed these students,” Wells said.

The idea for the Doorstep Project did not originate in DeKalb, but came to Wells while under the hospitality of a Chinese family.

It was 2004, and he had taken a mission trip to Inner Mongolia, China, or the “top of the banana” as Wells recalled, referring to the curved shape of the province. He was to help construct a camp to teach conversational English to Chinese children. Wells was nearing retirement and wanted to do more mission work through his church, Crossview EFCA Church.

During his first day on the site, the wife of the farmer who owned the land fixed noodles for him and the construction crew. He said he didn’t know it at the time, but the meal was more than the family would eat in a month.

“She didn’t think anything about it,” Wells said. “She didn’t ask for anything. She just did it because she knew that we hadn’t eaten.”

The gesture made such an impact on Wells that he said he wanted to make people visiting the U.S. for the first time feel at home. His plans would become a reality in 2011 when he bought his current home down the street from NIU and turned it into the headquarters for the Doorstep Project.

The organization has assisted hundreds of international students in conjunction with Network of Nations since its creation.

A large part of The Doorstep Projects funding comes through donations. Other areas come through the three rooms Wells rents out to international travelers.

One of the three rooms he rents out is set aside for students of the ELS program, a for-profit company focuses on teaching English to non-English native speakers. These are not NIU students but are in DeKalb to learn English at the ELS center based in Illinois.

Another large chunk of The Doorstep Project’s funding comes from the two rooms he rents out to NIU students; however, he doesn’t charge if a room or couch is open and someone needs a place to stay for the night.

Wells said he tries to meet two sets of needs most students arrive with.

The first set consists of physical needs such as transportation. Payment is not required for these services, but donations are welcome, Wells said.

The second set consists of emotional needs such as friendship.

Wells and his family provided both for “Miss Clara,” who arrived at the house from Saint Lucia as a 66-year-old NIU doctoral student in higher education in 2011. She introduced cricket into the household and remained a fan of the West Indies cricket team all the way up until she died from pancreatic cancer in May.

“We were helping getting her to her treatments and helping her when she was sick,” Wells said.

Another area the Doorstep Project assists international students in is learning how to interact with Americans. Whereas in the United States, a middle finger would be considered rude, to wave someone over with an up-ended index finger in China would be just as rude, Wells said.

“They have those norms in their cultures, and they don’t know what they are here,” Wells said. “And the last thing they want to do is … offend anybody. The big thing is they don’t want to look like a fool.”

However, not every international student who has walked into the baby blue house has been new to the U.S. or to traveling.

Resident Israel Chavez, a student from El Salvador, said he had visited the U.S. and made American friends several times before coming to NIU. He stays in one of the two rooms available at Wells’s home and pays $450 a month in rent.

Chavez said he enjoys the company of other international students who come by during social events or dinner. Porter isn’t so bad either, he said.

“I think one important thing is the opportunity that people in this country have to know about other cultures,” Chavez said. “It is kind of cool to understand why people do what they do  why people behave why they behave. And not only that broadens your perspective, but it also gives you more experience and allows you to be more empathetic with others.”

Keith Hernandez is a staff writer. He can be reached at