A Newcomerstown family recently hosted a Japanese boy through an exchange program, overcoming a language barrier to develop bonds.

Sara and Dave Shepherd discovered the opportunity through the 4-H program, where Sara Shepherd is an advisor. She heard that Labo, which is similar to 4-H in Japan, was in need of host families. After applying and going through training, the family was ready to meet Haruto Ishida, a 13 year-old boy.

They match the children with the family based on the similarities between the exchange students and the host child. Shepherd said they did a great job of matching Ishida with her 12 year-old son, Graham. They both enjoyed track and baseball and got along very well. 

"They got along really well. Haruto wasn’t shy about trying anything," Shepherd said.

Ishida is from Numata, a city in the Gunma Prefecture, Japan. The population is about 50,000 people, and he said he walked about 25 minutes to school each day. He stayed with the family for just under a month between July and August. Ishida and Graham Shepherd explored much of Ohio together, including the Ohio State Fair, Tall Timbers, Sugarcreek and Walnut Creek.

"Explaining the Amish culture was interesting, but I think he mostly understood," Sara Shepherd said. 

There are a lot hurdles that come with hosting a young boy from another country— namely the language barrier.

"The first few days involved a lot of sign language and Google translate," Shepherd said. "We must have gotten some words wrong because he would laugh and laugh."

Shepherd said the only thing they were "slightly worried" about beforehand was the food. A typical Japanese diet involves healthy portions of fresh vegetables, fish and rice. This was different from the families eating habits, but she said Haruto was happy with hearty American foods as well.

"He liked all the food we prepared," she said. "He really liked hamburgers."

The Shepherds also got to indulge in bits of Japanese culture as well— Ishida came prepared with a few tastes of home.

"He brought a bag of Japanese snacks. We tried a variety and some we liked, others not so much," Shepherd said. "He also made Tamagoyaki for us one morning. It’s a fried egg with sugar, salt, mayo. It’s rolled and then sliced like sushi."

Overall, Sara Shepherd said it was a great experience. The blending of cultures gave both sides an opportunity to learn more about other parts of the world. 

"We will miss him but plan to keep in touch through letters," Shepherd said. "We learned a lot from him and I hope he learned a lot from us."