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August 26, 2003

Lori LeMonds thought she might have a chance to spend summer break in Australia.

She wound up in Japan instead.

The junior at Boyle County High School returned Aug. 9 from Japan after seven weeks as part of a foreign exchange program sponsored by Panasonic.

"It was absolutely the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life," said the 15-year-old daughter of Ken and Sharon LeMonds. "I was nervous before I left, but my host family made me feel so welcome, and they treated me like their own daughter. I wouldn't trade this summer for anything."

LeMonds earned the scholarship from Panasonic after applying in November for a program sponsored by Toyota Manufacturing of Georgetown. Her initial application was for an exchange program to Australia, but LeMonds' application was accepted by Panasonic instead for a trip to Japan.


"My dad works for Panasonic," she said. "They found out I had applied through the Toyota program, and I found out from them I'd been accepted for the Japan trip."

After learning she had been accepted, LeMonds attended classes and orientation sessions at Toyota to learn basic Japanese phrases and cultural necessities.

Then she had to make a final decision whether or not she was willing to forgo her summer break and all its associated activities.

"I'm a trainer for the football team and vice president of the FFA (Future Farmers of America), and I wasn't 100 percent sure I wanted to miss all that during the summer," she said. "Right before I left, even, I had some second thoughts. But once I got there, I was OK."

Getting there was "half the fun," she said. She flew from Lexington to Chicago, then to San Francisco, then over the Pacific to Tokyo, finally arriving in Osaka on June 24.

"It took me two days to get there," she said.

In Osaka, she stayed with the family of Kenja and Naoko Niwa.

"My host sister is 18, a freshman in college, and after a few days, I felt almost like I was living at home," she said. "I did a lot of things with my host family, and now I feel like I have two families. They were wonderful to me."

LeMonds' days in Japan were filled with four weeks of school, during which she learned to speak Japanese. She also helped teach English to Japanese students one hour per day.

"I can speak Japanese well enough to travel around on my own now," she said. "I'd like to learn more, though. I want to be able to talk about anything with my host family."

LeMonds communicated with her parents in Danville every day via the Internet.

"The trickiest part was figuring the time difference," she said. "We finally worked it out if I got online at 9 every night, it was 8 in the morning at home."

Shopping and sightseeing were big items on the summer schedule, but LeMonds said the most touching moment of the trip came during the July 4 holiday.

"I was homesick then, real bad," she said. "I knew all my friends at home were celebrating, watching fireworks and having fun, and I got a little down. But then my host family took me to a celebration, and everybody was wearing red, white and blue and waving American flags, and they set off a bunch of fireworks. They even sang to me. It was so cool, and it made me feel like I was home."

She also had to go to zoos to see the farm animals she loves so much.

"There aren't a lot of farms in Japan, especially in the area where I stayed," she said. "My host family took me to the zoo a few times to see cattle and horses and other animals."

LeMonds is back home now. "It's hard for me to believe just three weeks ago I was in Japan," she said. "Now I'm back, listening to what everybody did over the summer, and I'm trying to catch up with all my friends. I had a terrible case of jet lag, and I'm still not sure I'm back on Kentucky time."

Her school activities have helped her plunge right back into her regular lifestyle, with football season approaching, FFA duties, and participation in the Pep Club. She also has the opportunity to serve as an alumni speaker for the foreign exchange program.

"They've said they might use me to talk to other students who are going, and I'd love to," she said. "I'm supposed to write a paper for them about my experiences in Japan, and what other students can expect if they go."

She's also glad her destination changed from Australia to Japan.

"I want to take two of my friends and go back," she said. "I love being home, but I miss my second family and friends in Japan. It is a part of my life that I will never, ever forget."|8/25/03***

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