A Flintshire youth exchange programme is looking for a new business sponsor that would help the 27-year-old scheme continue.

Students who took part in this year’s exchange have been talking about the life-changing opportunities and how the experience will help them throughout their careers.

A-level students from Alun High School, Mold, Meg Owens, 17, and Phoebe Lewis, 18, say it proved the chance of a lifetime to experience a very different culture and added the confidence they gained through participating in the scheme will prove invaluable as they go on to university.

The Optec Japanese Youth Exchange began in 1990 after Japanese firm Optec commenced trading in the then Alyn and District of Clwyd with a factory in Buckley.

Keen to see young people from North Wales and Japan experience each other’s cultures and lifestyles Optec bosses provided a sum of £120,000 to finance the exchange scheme and set up a charitable trust to administer the funds.

Since then six Flintshire students at a time have, each July, hosted Japanese students in their family homes before travelling to Japan with their new friends and staying as guests of the Japanese families.

So far, 162 Flintshire students from high schools across the county have benefited from the scheme.

But, after interest rates fell more than a decade ago, the capital held by the charitable trust – which is administered by Flintshire Council – has fallen year-on-year and there is now only sufficient funds for three more exchanges to take place.

Flintshire Council’s Japanese Youth Exchange co-ordinator, Karen Jones, a civic and member services officer in the council’s corporate services department, says it will be a big loss if the exchange runs out of money and has to stop in three years time.

She said: “Flintshire Council manages the scheme alongside a board of independent trustees. The council manages the scheme but does not fund it in any way.

“The exchange is now going into its 27th year and the students who flew out to Japan in the summer have just given a presentation to prospective applicants, and parents, who hope to participate in next summer’s programme.

“The Flintshire host families welcome a Japanese student into their homes for a two-week period so the Japanese students experience family life in North Wales.

“We collectively enjoy cultural events over the fortnight and go on an overnight visit to London and a West End show. The programme is varied and offers lots of time for the students to enjoy each other’s company and build friendships.

“The Flintshire students then travel to Japan with their new Japanese friends and stay as guests of the Japanese families.

“The language barrier is
generally quickly overcome and many life-long friendships have developed over the years and are maintained through social media and email.

“The exchange has benefited students and helped develop a real bond between Flintshire and Murata, Japan over the years.”

She added: “The charitable Trust can only continue with the money we have left for three more exchanges.

“However, I hope a company that understands the benefits of the exchange and would like to see it continue might step in and provide some funds allowing the exchange to continue for at least another few years.”

Megan Owens, 17, who hopes to study languages at Manchester University, says she really struck a bond with Japanese student, Rika, 21, who she was paired with.

Meg, as she prefers to be known, who lived at Flint Mountain at the time of last July’s exchange but has since moved to Chester, said: “The exchange was amazing, eye-opening and emotional.

“I never imagined I’d live for more than a fortnight in the home of a family on the other side of the world.

“The Japanese culture is so different to ours. I found Rika very reserved at first but soon discovered she had a wonderful sense of humour.

“She had never travelled outside of Japan before so to arrive in North Wales was a huge challenge for her.

“The Japanese family unit is perhaps much closer than we are used to and Rika’s grandparents, parents and sister, Hidemi, 26, all live under one roof.

“Only her sister had ever left Japan and that was for a short visit to China.

“The family are Buddhists but are very respectful of other faiths and traditions. Rika’s knowledge of British culture only expanded as far as Queen – the band not Her Majesty!”

She added: “Having the chance to take part in this exchange was so important and I hope the exchange goes on for many years to come.

“I have never travelled so far on my own before and taking part really boosted my confidence and independence.

“I learned so much about myself and other people and visiting Muratak, Zao and Kawasaki, the home towns of the Japanese students, as well as Tokyo was just an amazing opportunity.

“I tried different foods I never imagined I’d eat such as octopus, matcha tea and cow intestines.

“I met and stayed with a lovely, funny, generous Japanese family I now have a life-long connection too as well as making many other Japanese friends. It can only be of benefit to me in the future. It was just an amazing opportunity.”

Fellow student, Phoebe Lewis, says the exchange was 100 per cent the chance of a lifetime.

She said: “Japan is without doubt the most beautiful place I have ever visited. It’s so green and so clean. I was paired with Miki, 19, and her family welcomed me into their home with open arms.

“I’m a vegetarian and they respected that, even the fact I don’t eat fish. We had an amazing time and we learned so much and the experiences we shared will prove invaluable in the years to come.

“I feel the experience has really opened my eyes to an entirely different culture, raising my awareness and interest in international issues that previously I just wouldn’t have thought about.”

Phoebe, who wants to study product design at university, added: “The experience has pushed me to grow as person. I have found confidence and thoughtfulness I look forward to transferring to other aspects of my life.

“I have no doubt the Japanese Youth Exchange is a scheme that should continue as long as possible.

“It can only benefit the students that participate and Flintshire employers looking for talented individuals that have grabbed an opportunity and experienced a very different culture.”

Phoebe’s mum, Rachel, said she approached the Japanese Youth Exchange as a family project.

She said: “As a close family we jumped into the whole experience right from the start. We knew Phoebe would get a lot out of it. I’m proud of her and all the students who took part.

“Seeing them give presentations about their experiences has been amazing and is a way of preparing for the future world of work. I see a big change in Phoebe as she is more confident and mature.

“It has been really interesting to see cultural differences between young people and how they responded to each other and how they quickly became firm friends.”

She added: “The Japanese exchange is for me a rare and valuable thing that should be cherished. Not everyone can experience it but those students lucky enough to go to Japan it really is the chance of a lifetime.

“However, without funding it can’t happen.

“I really hope a forward thinking company or companies come forward so the exchange can continue for many years to come.”

To find out more about
Flintshire’s Japanese Youth Exchange email KarenJones@