Surfing at the Smiths


December 9, 2009

By JENNIFER ZIMMERMAN jzimmerman@pioneerlocal.com

The Smiths of Elmhurst very much resemble your typical nuclear American family.

With two kids and a beloved pup named Shadow, the couple’s three-story home sits at the end of a bustling neighborhood block where children’s bikes can be seen more frequently than cars, and young and old families have quietly settled in.

Rachel Smith poses with her dog, Shadow, on the couch of her Elmhurst home Friday. Smith is a member of the Web site couchsurfing.org, where she opens up her family’s couch to interested travelers passing through town.

CouchSurfing.org: Rachel’s page

Those visiting for the first time are usually met by lively family conversation and an invitation to a warm meal rather than the typical distractions of television or music.

“You want to be hospitable,” said Doug Smith.

But the Smiths have taken “hospitable” to a whole new level.

Earlier this year, upon the recommendation and request of his daughter, Rachel, Doug Smith literally opened up his family’s home to the entire World Wide Web.

Both his spare bedroom and downstairs couch are available for occupancy to some of the more than 1.5 million users of the Web site, couchsurfing.org.

Stretching across all areas of the world, the Web site allows users to create profiles and either offer up their own couches, free of charge, or search for one that is available in the area they are planning to visit. Or, instead of opening their couch for a night or week at a time, couch surfers can opt to instead have guests over for coffee or a drink.

About 1.6 million people have successfully “surfed” since the nonprofit organization was first created, according to the Web site.

“If it wasn’t for Rachel, I really wouldn’t have gotten involved at all,” Doug Smith said.

Rachel Smith runs her own profile on couchsurfing.org, where people can comment, leave recommendations or share their own experiences visiting with her family. So far, she has hosted three surfers, two of whom traveled halfway across the globe from New Zealand and Australia for a one-night stay with the Smiths.

The two men, both in their mid-20’s, were coming into town to do some recruiting work for a Christian college they worked for and needed a quick place to crash without having to spend a lot of cash.

“That was pretty exciting to have someone from halfway across the world stay the night,” Doug Smith said.

“And they loved the bunk beds,” his daughter added.

Although open to hosting more surfers, the Smith family is particularly choosey about who they welcome into their home, with both safety and convenience being major factors.

How long a person may want to stay, who they are and their intentions in passing through the area are all important considerations.

Having little to no information on a user’s profile page raises immediate red flags for the family, who will only welcome guests that provide sufficient background information, a phone number and have received good recommendations from fellow couch surfers. The Web site also has many verification systems built in to help ensure that those signing up are who they say they are.

“The last place you want to feel not safe is in your own home,” Doug Smith said. “Ask lot of questions. Find out if your kids have really done their homework on this.”

Having recently graduated from college, Rachel Smith is interested in experiencing the other side of couch surfing and will hopefully visit some foreign, but safe, couches of her own in the spring.

For now, though, she continues to attend couch surfing meet-ups in the city. She also keeps in touch with surfers she has already connected with, one of whom she regularly salsa dances with.

Both Rachel Smith and her dad are anxiously awaiting their next guest.

“I had the wrong impression of it,” said Doug Smith, who once called it the couch potato club. “But it’s no different than hosting a sleepover. You just don’t know the people.”

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