GLEN ROCK, N.J.– Stephen and Kristen O'Brien, of Glen Rock, recently waved goodbye to a group of Japanese students who made the roughly 13-hour flight to take part in an exchange summer camp program.
The Glen Rock couple forged a bond between the borough and Onomachi – which is nearly 7,000 miles away – that has lasted 25 years.
"What we thought would be a one-year thing became a real special bond between the two towns" said Stephen O'Brien, a 1987 Glen Rock High School graduate. "It continues to grow stronger and stronger with each year that passes."
The O'Briens were exchange students through American Field Services three decades ago. She studied in Japan while he was in Instabul, Turkey.
"That sparked our interest in having exchange students in Glen Rock," Stephen O'Brien said. "Plus, we caught the travel bug."
Kristen O'Brien returned to the Land of the Rising Sun as a college student to study in Kyoto. She later received a job offer in Onomichi, where she lived for four years, starting in 1991.
The town's then-mayor asked her – she was 22 at the time – to start an exchange program. A year later, the first group of Japanese students traveled to Glen Rock.
Since then, more than 500 students have traveled to the borough, Stephen O'Brien said.
Glen Rock has hosted town officials, including Mayor Akira Owada, who visited last year. During that same span, approximately 50 Glen Rockers have made the trip to Japan, the couple said.
This summer, Onomichi Junior High School sent 18 students and four staff members stateside.
"For some of the students and chaperones, this was their first time on a plane," Stephen O'Brien said.
"I had a wonderful time meeting the exchange students from our sister city, Onomichi, and spending some time explaining to them how our form of government works," said Glen Rock Mayor Bruce Packer. "It is a credit to our community that this program has been in place for 25 years now."
The students saw the Statue of Liberty. In the past, the visitors have toured New York City and hit the beach in Point Pleasant.
They spend three nights with host families and partake in a variety of activities, including bowling, miniature golf, biking, hiking and visiting the zoo.
"We want these students to get these experiences," Stephen O'Brien said.
The O'Brien's throw greeting and farewell parties, too. The 22 guests departed Thursday.
"They live in a rural community, similar in population [to Glen Rock]," Stephen O'Brien said. "The forms of government are similar with a town council and mayor. "They're very family-oriented and have that small-town atmosphere. Just like Glen Rock, Onomichi has a strong identity."
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