This year marks the 25th year that Glen Rock, NJ and Onomachi, Japan. The Japanese Exchange Program was started in 1991 by Glen Rock High School Class of ’87 students Kristen Stewart (now O’Brien) and Stephen O’Brien.
How did it all begin? In 1991 Onomachi’s Mayor Naotaka Akita asked Kristen if she could organize an exchange program for Junior High students so that they could gain confidence to learn and use English which is a mandatory subject in Japan.
Mayor Akita was a real visionary. He wanted the students in his rural town in Japan to be global citizens, so learning English and being exposed to other cultures, lifestyles and attitudes were important to him. He also knew that the students and townspeople would benefit from experiencing things in America that they may not have the chance to experience in Japan. He wanted his rural small town in Japan to realize there was a big world out there and that they needed to learn how to be open to different things. This is why the program is set up to have a homestay and then a camp stay.
The students that come over to the United States are picked after applying to go on this exchange. The application is a three part process: student have to write an essay, go through an interview process, and finally, teachers provide recommendations. The town of Onomachi subsidizes the majority of the cost of the trip for the students.
The homestay part of their trip in Glen Rock is approximately 5 days long. During their stay the families are encouraged to Introduce the students to different aspects of American life. This includes shopping, American food, activities around the area and anything else that the host family wants to share with them. The group also takes a walking tour of Glen Rock and visits some famous NYC sites such as the Statue of Liberty, The 911 memorial and Times Square.
This year there were 20 students hosted this year in 9 houses and 3 adult chaperones in 2 houses.
During the tour of Glen Rock, the students visited the Library and helped them catalog their Japanese collection. They then visited the GR Volunteer Ambulance Corp, Fire Department, police department, and Borough Hall and Met with Mayor Bruce Packer. After which they learned more about Glen Rock history through the Glen Rock Historical Society and visiting the Rock. This was all done on one of they hottest days so far. Afterwards they then cooled off at the Glen Rock Pool.
Many of the hosts ensured that they treated these kids with completely American cuisine to get more of a flavor of the US. It ranged from Pizza to Mac & Cheese to Hamburgers and Fries, of course with fruits and vegetables to balance that out.
Other activities the students participated in were TaeKwanDo classes at Gary Stevens TawKwanDo, Your A Good Man Charlie Brown, a musical by 5 Corners Theater Group.
At the end of the stay they celebrated with a barbecue at the GR Pool.
This program is a strong reflection of what this town is. Talking to Kristen Stewart O’Brien, she said:
Stephen and I know firsthand what a life-changing experience a program like this can be. It is a humbling experience to see the friendships that have been forged within each town and between both towns. This program has touched so many lives, and it is because of the generous spirits of the Glen Rock and Onomachi townspeople that this program is still thriving today.