Fremont teacher builds partnership with northern Japanese city

A random suggestion by a friend took Fremont Middle School teacher Loren Edwards to Yahaba, Japan, in 1989 to teach English.

Three years later, with strong encouragement from his superintendent and what he calls a “chance for a free airplane ticket home,” Edwards started an annual eighth grade international exchange program between students in Yahaba and Fremont.

“It’s a powerful thing” — that’s how Edwards describes the Fremont-Yahaba Friendship City Program, which began with five eighth graders from a small city in northern Japan coming to Fremont, a small town in West Michigan.

Each summer, eight students, two teachers and a person from the community travel to Yahaba. A similar group from Japan visits Fremont in the fall. During their 10-day visits, travelers are treated like royalty by their respective friendship cities.

Since 1992, the exchange has given more than 400 students, 102 teachers and 158 community representatives a chance to learn that people — no matter where they’re from — share more similarities than differences.

A key requirement for being accepted into the program is taking on the responsibility of creating and presenting an original cultural program. Each student who represents Freemont must develop and present a 50-minute presentation that includes a personal biography, a demonstration of their culture and an audience participation activity.

In 2011, the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan forced the cancellation of the exchange, but the two cities still connected. Fremont students, community members and service organizations collected money to help residents in Yahaba and surrounding communities.

In the future, the Yahaba International Society’s nationally renowned high school choir — which performed in the refugee camps after the earthquake and tsunami — will include Fremont on its world tour.

Edwards is committed to ensuring that the program keeps going long after he’s gone, so it can continue to change the lives of the students and adults by giving them the opportunity to form relationships with people from another country and culture.

For forging a long-lasting partnership that bridges cultures, languages and people to promote international understanding, MEA has recognized Edwards with its 2013 Elizabeth Siddall Human Rights Award.