March 18, 2011

During the past week, many Americans have watched the catastrophic events in Japan unfold on television and have felt compassion and sympathy for the Japanese people. Kentucky 4-H’ers are no different.

University of Kentucky 4-H specialist Mark Mains coordinates the state’s 4-H participation in Japan’s Language Laboratory (Labo) program, which brings Japanese students to the United States for four weeks during the summer to stay with an American family and learn about the country’s culture and family dynamics.

Since the earthquake and tsunami, Mains has received several calls from 4-H’ers, some of whom have participated as Labo host sibilings, who want to help with relief efforts and know the status of their Japanese friends.

Mains said the national Labo program has requested that interested people make donations to the Japanese Red Cross. This can be done with a credit card at the agency’s website . Donations must be entered in yen. For example, $25 is about 2,000 yen. An easy-to-use exchange converter is available online at Mains said sending items over to Japan is expensive, and mail is not being delivered to the affected areas as distribution channels are blocked right now.

Mains said only two of the 10 Japanese 4-H’ers in the 2010 Kentucky Labo program lived in the areas affected by the natural disasters. Of those, one has contacted her Kentucky host family and the Labo program and is safe. One of the 10 students scheduled to participate in this year’s program lives in the affected area as well. However, no contact has been made with her yet. Just because these 4-H’ers haven’t been in touch with the Labo program doesn’t mean that they’re not okay.

“Communication has really been limited as many people are without electricity and Internet,” Mains said. “Safety and shelter is their first concern right now.”

The 2011 Labo program is expected to continue as planned for Japanese young people coming into the United States and American 4-H’ers going to Japan. No U.S. 4-H’ers will be placed in the areas affected by the natural disasters this summer.

Mains encourages people to sign up to be host families now because it will eliminate any last-minute scrambling to place students and give the Japanese students something to look forward to in the disaster’s aftermath. Japanese students will stay with their host families from July 23 to Aug. 19.

Mains said being a host family is a great cultural and educational experience for Americans.

“Being a host family would be a great way to connect what’s happening in the global society to an experience in your home,” Mains said.

Host families do not need to participate in 4-H or speak Japanese. The only requirement for the host family is to have a child similar in age and gender to the exchange student. The Japanese students should have their own area and bed but can share a room with their host sibling. Since the program focuses on American culture, Japanese youth will not be placed in homes of families with the same cultural background.

Hosting a LABO participant does not require a large monetary investment. Host families are expected to provide for them in the same ways they provide for their child. Students come with spending money for any extras they want to purchase. Hosts are encouraged not to plan extravagant trips or deviate from their daily routines. While in the United States, the exchange students and their host families can participate in 4-H programs at any level with which they are comfortable, but participation is not a requirement.

Families or adults who do not have children ages 12 to 14 can volunteer to host one of the two group chaperones. The chaperones have good English speaking skills and stay with a host family for either a two or four week period. The chaperones’ main objective is to help with communication and facilitate problems any of the Japanese youth may have.

Japanese students, chaperones and their host families will participate in 4-H’s International Day on Aug. 19 at the Kentucky State Fair. Japanese students will demonstrate a particular aspect of their culture, such as origami, and the host families will be on hand to answer questions about their student’s demonstration and 4-H International Programs.

Those interested in receiving more information on 4-H international opportunities, should contact Mark Mains at 859-257-5961, ext. 231 or via e-mail to Requesting information does not obligate families to host this year. Applications for those interested in hosting a student this summer should be submitted by May 15. Host families and students are matched based on their similarities.

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