While their friends and classmates passed summer days leisurely, a group of American and Japanese teens chose to spend several weeks in service to others as part of a Service Learning Exchange Program between the West Cook YMCA and the Saitama, Japan YMCA.
Ten American and 13 Japanese teens traveled 8,780 miles to their respective destinations to participate in the month-long program, which began in mid-July.
“This reciprocal cultural exchange program is an invaluable experience for all of these young people who represent the best of what youth has to offer our world from both countries,” said Jan Pate, West Cook YMCA president and CEO.
Students, host parents and chaperons all agree that the Service Learning Exchange program is life changing.
During a two-week stay in Japan, the Oak Park teens spent time in Saitama, outside Tokyo, and traveled to nearby Sendai, where the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the hardest and caused massive destruction. The team put into practice the YMCA’s mission of global engagement by assisting survivors and displaced families, working alongside Mr. Watanabe, a Sendai farmer whose crop sales are being donated back to the Sendai community to assist with ongoing relief efforts.
While in Chicago, the Japanese exchange students participated in the West Cook YMCA’s Camp Magellan, where they joined in a variety of activities alongside their fellow teen campers, including service projects, swimming excursions, field trips to downtown Chicago, a World Service Bazaar, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, a tour of DePaul University, and much more.
The exchange program, in its second year, is a unique opportunity for youth to expand their worldview, while upholding the YMCA’s pillars of service and youth development.
Jacob Molho, 14, and Kamille Brashear, 17, two of the program’s American participants, both stressed the importance of living for others by being involved in service projects and service trips.
“I think this trip was important because it helped me and my companions understand the significance of doing service,” said Molho, an incoming freshman at Oak Park River Forest High School. “It sets an example for other people, like my family and friends, showing them that doing any kind of service project can have a lasting impact.”
“Experiencing another culture and gaining an appreciation for another culture beyond our own is also important,” added Brashear. “I found that experiencing Japanese culture gave me a better appreciation for my own culture. For all of us it was a growing experience where we came away with a better understanding of ourselves and what we are capable of doing.”
Asaka Sugihara, 16, also touched on the impacts of American culture for herself and her companions. “This trip has given me the chance to see Japan from another perspective, which I appreciate” she said.
“It's very fulfilling and amazing to see the positive change in the kids, to watch how much they open up and connect with one another,” said Kimberly Brumirski, an Oak Park resident and West Cook Y member who participated in the exchange program as a host for the past four years.
Mariko Aoyagi, chaperon of the Japanese students, echoed that thought. “This experience is not easy at certain times,” she said.“Each of the students experiences something different, and the change in their sense of confidence that stems from that personal challenge does not end with their return home. This is truly a life-changing experience for the students.”
About the West Cook YMCA
Annually, the West Cook YMCA touches the lives of more than 10,000 residents of Oak Park, River Forest, Bellwood, Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, Maywood, Melrose Park, River Grove and Stone Park, focusing on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
The Y builds strong collaborative relationships that improve the quality of life in these communities by conducting more than 100 weekly programs and classes either inside the Y or through outreach efforts.