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Joanna Tebbs Young


In 1986, the Rutland Ishidoriya Student Exchange, or RISE, sent their first delegation to its sister city in Japan. Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2016, RISE has since sent approximately 200 Rutland Middle School and Rutland High School students on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

And, this year is no exception. On June 16, six students — four 8th graders: Sarah Bloch, Emily Wigmore, Michael O’Connor and Chase Thorner; and two 9th graders: Tyler Carroll and Hali Young (disclaimer: she’s my daughter) — will travel to Japan for ten days. Flying first to Tokyo, a 14-hour flight, the kids and their intrepid chaperone, Rutland High/Middle School band teacher, Brent Barnett, will travel three hours on the 180-mph bullet train to Hanamaki. Here they will stay with the families of students who visited Rutland from Japan last fall.

Hanamaki, a city similar to Rutland in that it is in an agricultural area surrounded by mountains, is made up of four merged towns, including the original exchange site of Ishidoriya. While there, the students will visit local schools, attend classes, and take part in other activities arranged for them. One such outing will include a visit to the “Rutland Room” at the city’s museum. While every RISE group chooses different sight-seeing and activities, they all spend at least a little time in Tokyo, an opportunity not to be missed, according to one previous RISE participant, who described it as “New York on steroids.” After doing some research, the kids have put in their requests for their own must-sees and dos while in the city. According to the group’s time and financial abilities, they will try to fit in as much as they can before flying home on June 26.

Each year the six to eight students are selected from a group of applicants “on their own merits,” in a process that is “economically blind,” according to RISE committee chairman, Tim Wigmore. Mr. Wigmore, who has been involved with RISE since his son went to Japan in 2004, also served as a chaperone for one exchange. Impressed by the “incredible warmth of the Japanese people,” he has also witnessed what an amazing experience it is for the students and their extended families. “This trip changes kids,” he says. “They learn that wherever they are in the world, kids are like them. People are people.”

And, it is meeting the Japanese people of their host city and families that the students are particularly looking forward to. “I am excited to see how different their lives are than mine. I think it will be very different,” says Sarah. “I am excited about meeting a new friend and keeping in touch with the family, maybe being able to visit them again.” Chase Thorner has been in touch with her host family already, and thinks “they sound pretty cool.”

For most of the delegates, their excitement began the moment they heard about the exchange program. “When one of my friends went two years ago, she told me about how fun, new, exciting, and a great learning experience it is. I immediately wanted to do it,” Emily explains. Michael, who heard about the experience from his sister, Megan, who was a RISE student two years ago, says he couldn’t wait to apply once he was old enough. Hali learned about the program when the delegates came to talk to her 7th-grade class. She was immediately interested. “I went home and started trying to learn Japanese.”

Of course, there are nerves as well. The language barrier is one concern of chaperone, Mr. Barnett. “I’m a bit nervous [about] trying to communicate and find our way around,” he explains. Student Michael shares this worry, but “I’m sure I’ll get over it,” he says.

The kids have begun preparing themselves for the language and cultural differences. Emily has been reading “Japanese for Dummies,” Chase has put some translator apps on her phone, Sarah has been grilling a friend who lived in Japan for information, and Hali attended a Japanese language group last year and has watched the movie “Shogun.”

Mr. Barnett, who is a self-claimed “bit of a history geek,” has taken his preparations further. “I’ve done lots of internet research to look at the differing Japanese customs, as well as to find out more about the Hanamaki region,” he says. “I have also been talking with some friends that have visited Japan or have even lived there to get their suggestions on things to do or things to expect.”

The RISE program itself is fully responsible for funding the exchange. Overall, this amount, which covers airfare, train ride, van rental, hotel stay (in Tokyo), and other activities in Japan, as well as the activities planned for when the families of this year’s students will host the Japanese students in Rutland in October, amounts to approximately $25,000. Other than two grants which are generally awarded each year from the Tuttle and Freeman Foundations, the parents and students raise the balance, which as of this writing is approximately $18,000.

Beyond a letter-writing campaign each year when the students send out letters to past RISE participants and others on the mailing list, the students and parents determine their own money-making methods. This year, they took donation buckets to Ben and Jerry’s Free Cone Day, and other buckets have been placed in various stores and restaurants around town. Last Thursday, Applebee’s donated 15 percent of the price of the meal of those diners who presented a Dining to Donate flier.

They have also set up a silent auction-type raffle, which, thanks to many local businesses and organizations, includes almost 30 items. The raffle will be set up at the chorus, band and orchestra concerts on Wednesday, May 23 and Thursday, May 24, both in the lobby of the Rutland Intermediate School. Winners will be drawn at the Thursday concert.

On June 2, there will be a free shredding day at the UPS store on N. Main Street in Rutland, where donations will be accepted to help the RISE program. A fall spaghetti dinner is in the works for just before the Japanese students arrive in time for the Halloween Parade — a highlight for them.

Individual donations are always welcome! Send checks to RISE at P.O. Box 1049, Station A, Rutland, VT 05701. The kids will be most appreciative.

“RISE is part of what makes Rutland unique,” says Mr. Wigmore, who wants to express his gratitude to the city, the mayor, the aldermen, and the community as a whole for continuing to support this program over the years. “The emotional bond formed between these kids and the families is incredible,” he explains. “They make lifelong friends.”

Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA

Joanna Tebbs Young is a freelance writer, author, and expressive writing coach living in Rutland. Email her at

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