NEW PORT RICHEY — The space between Florida and Finland is about 5,000 miles, but family ties have a way of closing such distances if you work for it.
And that is just what a Finnish foreign exchange student and a local family have done for more than 20 years. Heidi Aho, 40, and her family came back to Pasco County for the fifth time this Christmas to share another reunion with the Fleurys, who hosted her more than two decades ago.
While the scenery has changed since she lived with Mary Jane and Jack Fleury and their daughter, Myndee, for the 1987-88 school year at Gulf High School, the memories flowed in the Fleurys' living room this week as though Heidi had never left.
"I think what means the most to me is that she became part of the family, and we have never lost that," said Mary Jane.
The two families' lives intertwined when an announcement came over the loudspeaker at Gulf High School as sophomore Myndee sat in class. A quiet girl she knew only by sight in her gym class needed a home.
That girl, Heidi, then 17, had come to the United States as part of a foreign exchange program, but her initial host family had not worked out. Heidi came to learn English, but her first host family spoke Greek at home.
The Fleurys had filled out applications to be a host family, but they had been put on a waiting list. When Myndee heard the announcement that Heidi wanted a new home, she hopped on the opportunity.
As the youngest of six children, all of whom had left home by then, Myndee welcomed the thought of a new person her age in the house.
"And Heidi being from a foreign country, I thought it was just so mysterious," said Myndee, now 39.
"Odd!" Heidi added with a grin, nudging Myndee with an elbow.
Of course, when Heidi moved into the Fleurys' home, then in Holiday, it took some getting used to. The girls had to share a room and chores and overcome a language barrier. Heidi spoke a bit of English in the beginning, but a lot of getting by in a foreign country is instinct.
"You learn what things mean very quickly, even if you haven't ever heard the word before in your life," Heidi said.
And there are customs that are just plain different, like the concept of Halloween, which baffled Heidi.
"She just could not understand going door to door begging for candy," Mary Jane said. "She kept saying it just wouldn't be done in Finland."
But Heidi let her adventurous side take over as she and Myndee went trick-or-treating in their neighborhood. Heidi dressed as a Las Vegas can-can girl and Myndee as a black cat.
"And I never wear a skirt, so that was something," Heidi said.
Heidi studied American history, home economics and driver's education at Gulf High. Heidi and Myndee went to get their driver's licenses the same day. Heidi passed; Myndee didn't.
"That's just the type of person she is. Nothing stops her," Myndee said.
After a year of living with the Fleurys, Heidi had a going away party that brought emotion no one could believe.
Even Jack, the family patriarch and grizzled World War II veteran, hated to see her go.
"I actually breathed a sigh of relief," joked Jack, now 84.
"Oh please, you were crying just like the rest of us!" Mary Jane said with a laugh.
The bond between the Fleurys and Heidi is an example of a perk of foreign exchange programs in the United States, according to John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.
"There are often really interesting stories like that," he said.
Over the years, Heidi and Myndee have both built families of their own. Heidi's husband, Timo Silen, and their sons Vili, 11, and Mikael, 9, came with her on this year's visit, as always.
The boys played with Myndee's sons, Brannyn, 10, and Reed, 7, outside the Fleurys' Wood Trails condominium, like best friends who had never been apart.
"They jump right into it like nothing has changed," Mary Jane said. "They are part of the family."
It is the kind of togetherness over the years that can be rare for foreign exchange students and their host families.
"Everyone in Finland that I know who did it has lost touch with their host families," Heidi said. "But I always knew I would be back."