Ken and Harriet Yasui, who for some 40 years have chaired the Lions International Student Exchange program sponsored by the local service club, ended the program at the club’s Aug. 15 meeting at Hometown Buffet.
“We hoped that someone else would take over the program, but no one wanted to, and we decided several years ago that if no one else would step up, we would call it quits,” Ken said.
His wife, Harriet, said the couple enjoyed coordinating the program that sent five high-school-age students from Tracy to Japan each summer and hosted a like number of students from Japan for three weeks in Tracy.
“But it (the program) took a lot of work, from February through August each year, and no matter how we enjoyed it, we just couldn’t do it any more,” she said.
Both Yasuis said that although the Lions Club-sponsored exchange program has ended, they will still take part as committee members in the exchange program for middle-school-aged students sponsored by the Tracy Sister City Association.
Students in that program — held each spring — come from Tracy and its Japanese sister city, Memuro, located on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The Lions Club program, however, sent Tracy students to all parts of Japan for five weeks — two weeks with two Japanese families and a week at a youth camp for students from all parts of the world.
“The youth camp was especially popular with the students,” Harriet said. “They had a chance to meet students from many countries. Some friendships started at the camp continued for years.”
The overall experience, traveling to and from Japan and then being in a foreign country with another language for five weeks, is something most students never forget, Ken said.
“Even when the Tracy students had just returned home, we could tell that most were more confident and outgoing than before they left,” he said. “For many, it was life-changing.”
The Japanese students spent three weeks in Southern California and three weeks in Tracy.
“Host parents in Tracy really bonded with the Japanese students,” Harriet said. “They had a number of activities that involved all of the families and visitors.”
Tracy students taking part in the program were selected in February and March after the Yasuis had interviewed students and their families. If the parents were more interested in the program than the students, that usually signaled a rejection. Some rejected students became more interested in going to Japan and applied again before being selected, Ken said.
Families of the students paid half of the airfare between the U.S. and Japan, a cost that steadily increased in recent years. This year, the total airline fare of $2,700 was divided evenly.
The Tracy Breakfast Lions Club financed the club’s share of the program through an annual “ball-draw” dinner. Now that dinner will generate funds for college scholarships, Ken explained.
On returning home, the Tracy students would report their experiences before the Breakfast Lions Club. Speaking to the club last week were Elizabeth Higa, Beau Mantor, Nikita Uskov and Jenna Huynh. Kristen Holtz had to leave for college in Pennsylvania, and her mother, Lynette Holtz, reported for her.
“Almost all the students over the years said they had a good experience,” Ken said. “That’s the best reward Harriet and I have had over these many years.”
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.