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American candy. That’s what two 14-year-old male Japanese exchange students visiting Forest Park wanted to see last summer when the Blaylock family hosted them as part of an exchange with the West Cook YMCA.

“They were really excited to go to CVS and see American candy,” said Justin Blaylock, 13, a seventh-grader at Forest Park Middle School.

The Japanese teens, Iwana and Takumi, stayed with the Blaylocks for an August weekend last year. The Forest Parkers took them to a 16-inch softball game, grabbed burgers, hot dogs and shakes at Portillo’s, visited the teen room at the Forest Park Public Library and played ping pong in the rec room of Forest Park Baptist Church.

“It’s interesting to see that it’s the little things that can help someone experience American culture,” said father Sean Blaylock, Forest Park District 91 school board member and West Cook Y supporter.

Now three Blaylock children are preparing to visit Japan this summer in a reciprocal World Service exchange through the Big Hearts program of the international YMCA.

Eight students from Oak Park and Forest Park will visit Japan for two weeks.

“There’s a service component,” said Jan Pate, director of the West Cook Y. “They’ll visit a Y in Saitama, outside of Tokyo, and then they’ll go to Sendai, in a part of Japan worst hit by the [2011] tsunami.”

For Simone Blaylock, 14, a freshman at the Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA), it’s a dream come true. She loves all things Japanese, folds origami in her spare time, is a member of the anime club at school and watches anime cartoons in Japanese on YouTube. Her brothers love Japanese technology. Brendon, 17, is on PMSA’s prizewinning robotics team.

For the Blaylocks, the West-Cook Y is a home away from home.

“The Y and Forest Park Baptist Church are anchors in our lives and our community,” said Sean Blaylock. Andrea Blaylock, who serves on the library board, agrees.

“We’ve been to Y camps here, art camp, sports camp, Lego camp, acting and music,” she said. “Our youngest son plays basketball through the Y league. Swimming lessons, family roller skate night. We’re just here all the time.” The West Cook Y honored the Blaylocks as 2007 Family of the Year.

“We volunteer here and we help,” said Sean Blaylock. “It’s a safe place and a very positive area for kids and families to go.” They wish more Forest Parkers would take advantage of the Y.

Of course, they were disappointed when the YMCA deal to buy the Altenheim property and build a state-of-the art facility in Forest Park fell through in 2009. “The Y has so many tangible and intangible benefits to a community,” said Blaylock.

YMCAs exist all over the world, each country’s Y programs working independently, said Pate. “The Y in Japan does many of the same sorts of programs, such as pre-school, English language classes, senior activities and summer camps,” she noted.

“But the Y in Japan played a big role as emergency shelter after the tsunami. The Sendai YMCA housed refugees for months.”

Pate just returned from Japan, where she visited partnering Ys who participate in the Big Hearts Project. The Japanese students have come to West-Cook Y for four years and she’s excited that local teens are finally going to Japan.

While the Japanese students in Oak Park and the area are preparing lunches for the PADS homeless shelter, Pate said the Blaylocks and other local teens will be helping out on a strawberry farm near Sendai. “It’s a farmer who chose to stay in Sendai after the tsunami and rebuild. He donates his profits from the strawberry sales to help local people.”

The Blaylock teens have zilch experience with agriculture. “We help Mom with the flowers in front of the house sometimes,” jokes Simone. But they’re eager to help. “We may have to help build another greenhouse for the farm,” she said.

Hosting the Japanese boys gave them a taste of what to look forward to.

“We found out how to use Google Translate,” said Sean. “We’d type something in English and the computer would say it in Japanese. Also, some missionaries from Japan just happened to be at church the weekend we had the students, so they were able to speak their own language.”

The Blaylocks need to raise $3,000 each to pay for the trip. They are coordinating bake sales, a car wash and possibly a sponsored park cleanup. They are also hoping to post a blog about their experiences, and welcome local businesses to help support them in exchange for advertising on the blog.

“Part of the Y’s mission is global engagement,” said Pate. “We want to make it available for our young people. After four years of hosting exchange students from Japan, it’s time for our students to go.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...