Ask most parents how many children they have and you’ll get a fairly prompt reply. Ask Barb & George Wyndham of Kenton, Ohio and they may start counting on their fingers. “We have three biological daughters; that part is easy,” muses George. As for the many exchange students they have hosted from around the world who have become part of their family? “That will take some time to figure,” laughs Barb. The actual total is over 50, and their counting and parenting skills were utilized fully this past summer when they traveled to Japan to visit 15 of “their kids.”
The Wyndhams began their international family about 25 years ago when their daughter came home from a 4-H meeting begging for “a new sister from Japan.” Ohio 4-H has one of the largest international exchange programs in the country and the Wyndhams were intrigued. They hosted and then quickly became program volunteers, with their daughters growing up considering youth from Japan, Germany, Estonia, Denmark and many other countries as brothers and sisters. The 2015 trip to Japan was awarded to them by 4-H’s exchange partner in Japan, in recognition of their 37,500 volunteer hours.
The Wyndhams, who together contribute over 1,500 volunteer hours annually to the 4-H international program, were thrilled to learn they would be the recipients of an air and train package offered by Japan. “It has been our dream for many years, and finally, everything came together to allow us to go,” said George.
Once they arrived in Japan, the Wyndham’s “kids,” most of whom are now grown with families of their own, took charge of the two-week trip. They organized train connections, overnight stays in their homes and even group events with each other’s spouses and children (who the Wyndhams call their “grandchildren”). A reunion in Tokyo with nine exchangees and their families was a highlight.
“All of our exchange kids consider each other brothers and sisters,” said Barb. “It’s fun for them to get together, too, and see how they all have changed.”
The Wyndham’s tour took them from the urban center of Tokyo to the rural rice fields of Himeji to the islands off the coast. After playing host for a quarter of a century, they enjoyed being the visitors, especially with the personalized nature of their trip. “We saw students in classrooms and did the daily shopping in grocery stores … the kinds of things not available to tourists,” said George.
Since the trip, the Wyndhams are as committed as ever to volunteering for the exchange program. “Hosting was a wonderful way for our own girls to learn about someone from the other side of the world and to become friends with someone who could not speak fluent English,” says Barb, a member of the Ohio 4-H Volunteer Hall of Fame. “We want other families in our area to have that experience, also. Our reward is when a family tells us ‘Thank you so much for introducing us to this wonderful program – it was life-changing not only for our children, but for us, as parents.”
The Wyndham's continue to put into practice their favorite quote, from anthropologist Jane Goodall: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you … you just have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
By Mary Lynn Thalheimer (for Ohio Country Journal, Feb. 2016)