NIFEE exchange a nifty idea
Paul Faris had a life-altering experience in his Grade 12 year.
The Port Colborne High School alumnus spent the year as a rotary exchange student in Japan.
“It was such a tremendous experience and it affected my life in so many ways,” he said. “I wanted to try and do something to give the same opportunity to as many people as possible.”
While a student at the University of Toronto in 1990, Faris created the Niagara International Friendship Exchanges for Education (NIFEE) and started with men’s teams from Niagara.
The concept of the exchange was to bring players from Japan, have them billet in the houses of their Canadian opponents and use basketball as the common language. The Canadians would then visit Japan.
“There would be on the court stuff but the home stay was the real key for the players getting to know each other,” he said. “Basketball was the tool that got people to go back and forth.”
The focus of the exchange shifted to high school students in 1993 when the Japanese under-19 boys team competed in the Welland Tribune Tournament. The following year, a group of Niagara high school players travelled to Japan.
‘That was the first step of the high school level,” Faris said.
The program has run continuously with high school students since 1993 except for a brief hiatus when one of the Japanese schools that was a regular exchange partner decided not to participate.
The exchange students from Japan are now coming from Kanazawa, Ishikawa in Japan. Coincidentally, that is where Faris was for his Rotary exchange.
This year’s delegation includes 31 Japanese basketball players and eight staff members. Next year, 21 Niagara boys and girls, ages 14 and 15, will head to Japan
Faris likes everything about the exchange.
“I love the opportunity to see young people and the host families being able to experience something completely different in getting to know and live in other families’ homes,” he said. “That is a really great thing for people to open their homes, to welcome people into their homes and for the young people to see and observe a different culture.
“It can open so many doors and create an awareness of the necessity of being a global citizen.”
Mackenna Belding, a Grade 10 student at E.L. Crossley, is enjoying the exchange.
“You get to make friends across the world and you get to tour Canada again which we don’t necessarily do because we live here and don’t think it is as great,” the 14-year-old said. ‘You get play tourist and eventually we will get to go to Japan.”
The Beldings have been billeting a female player, a coach and a referee.
“It’s good,” she said. “The coaches are sleeping in my brother’s room and my room so my student and I are on cots in our living room.”
Communication has been surprisingly easy.
“The coaches speak English really well and there’s Google Translate.”
Mackenna can’t wait to visit Japan in 2020.
“I am looking forward to trying new food and seeing how their space is different,” she said. “The first thing they said when they pulled into our driveway is that they had never seen so much space.”
Josh Larochelle, another Grade 10 student at E.L. Crossley, is a big fan of the exchange program.
“I think it is a great experience and I have learned a lot from the Japanese boys about their culture, what they eat, how they act, and also a lot from them on the court — how they play and their style,” he said. “I’ve taken that away and it will benefit me in the future.”
Josh has two players billeting with him and his family.
“It has worked out surprisingly well,” he said. “I thought they might talk to each other and not talk to us too much but being together they have been more comfortable and we have been using the translator app to talk to each other.
“Google Translate is amazing.”
He is excited about travelling to Japan in 2020.
“I really love Japanese food,” he said, with a smile.
The exchange program is open to all teens in Niagara.
“You don’t have to be the best basketball player, you don’t have to be a language expert, it’s people who are interested in doing something for the experience,” Faris said. “Because it is different it has meaning, it gives value and is going to be a positive experience.”
Yoshitake Miyanishi, the head of the Japanese delegation who coached two years ago, loves what the program does for the Japanese kids.
“Making that decision to participate is really important,” he said. “Rather than telling them what to think, it’s about what do they feel about the experience and getting the opportunity to have emotional experiences in another country.”
Those experiences will last a long time.
“Once they go back to Japan next week or when they are a couple years older, they start to think about it and what they did, what other people did for them and the opportunity they had,” Miyanishi said. “That’s the real power of the exchange.”
The Japanese students have been surprised how big Canada is and the difference in lifestyles.
Niagara College has played host to the exchange, and the Japanese teams, NIFEE teams and Niagara Selects boys and girls squads will compete in a tournament Friday at the college from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Saturday, the exchange will wrap up with games between the Japanese and NIFEE boys and girls team between 9 a.m. and noon.
Elliott Etherington, a pro coach with the Sudbury Five, is in charge of the NIFEE delegation. Barclay Walker and Jeremy West are coaching the NIFEE boys team and Aaron Belding and Vanessa Rampado are the girls coaches. West is a former NIFEE player.