A Chinese delegation stopped at Camp Onyahsa on Wednesday as part of their tour of Chautauqua County.

“The group leader, Song, has been here before as an exchange counselor,” said Jon O’Brian, YMCA Camp Onyahsa director. “One other individual in the group has been here before, as well, but the other eight have never seen Chautauqua County before this. It may even be their first time in the United States.”

Song, who works as the secretary for the publicity and liaison department of the Chengdu YMCA and YWCA, said that the organizations have a very good relationship with the Jamestown YMCA. Song also helped to organize the trip for the delegation, which included visits to local schools, organizations like Infinity Visual and Performing Arts, and more.

“The YMCA serves the community, so we want to try to improve Chinese education in Jintang and Chengdu,” Song said. “That’s why we brought the school principals and administrators here to see the American education system. We’re trying to connect the two places so that both of us can get stronger. We’ve been asked many questions about Chinese education so they can learn something about us.”

The project, which is a collaboration between the Jamestown YMCA, Jamestown Community College and the YMCA and YWCA in Chengdu, China, was proposed as a way to deepen the cultural understanding between two very different societies.

“I believe that one of the most important bilateral relationships of the 21st century will be between China and the United States,” O’Brian said. “We’re working on person-to-person diplomacy with this program.”

The roots of this developing program began in 2008 after a major earthquake hit the Sichuan state of China, where Chengdu is situated. Many buildings, including schools at all levels, were severely damaged or completely destroyed by the earthquake. Following the disaster, the State Universities of New York, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, provided 100 students from Sichuan with full scholarships to study in New York for one year. Five of those students studied at JCC in 2009.

“Marilyn Zagora, the dean of academic affairs at JCC, really worked closely with those students,” O’Brian said. “She made them feel welcome in Jamestown.”

The following year, the Chinese government invited 100 SUNY faculty members, administrators, and students to the country for two weeks. The trip, which was fully funded by the Chinese government, had participants spending one week in Beijing and one week in Chengdu. O’Brian, as well as two students from JCC, attended the trip.

“We met with university officials and that’s when we began talking about exchange programs,” O’Brian said. “One of my days in Chengdu, I met with the CEO of the Chengdu YMCA, Madame Hua. She was excited about the possibilities for an exchange program between our organizations. My main interest was in bringing Chinese children to camp here, but she said that she also wanted to bring Americans to Chengdu to help teach English.”

In 2011, two YMCA counselors from Chengdu were brought to Camp Onyahsa, and in 2012, O’Brian went back to Chengdu to work on counselor and student exchange programs. Beginning this past spring, JCC has started a program in which two students are sent to China to work in both Chengdu and Jintang at the YMCA.

“In the future, we really hope that this will include a teacher exchange as well,” O’Brian said. “It’s an evolving relationship. The world that our kids are growing up in is becoming increasingly global, and we want to foster international understanding through these programs. We’ve developed trust between the organizations, and that’s crucial for the next stage of development.”

County Executive Greg Edwards also came to Camp Onyahsa to field questions from the delegation. Members talked to Edwards about topics including education, job prospects, and how the government prioritizes spending in regard to both of those sectors, as well as many others.

“I’m thrilled that Jon O’Brian and the YMCA have worked so hard to create this relationship,” Edwards said. “I’m also thrilled that they get to start their U.S. experience here in Chautauqua County. While New York City or Los Angeles will have a lot of attraction because of their size and urban nature, I think it’s important for people to understand the the United States is more than just these two urban areas on either coast. It’s been universal that folks that come here to see what we have to offer then look for opportunities to come back. I’m hopeful this exchange continues.”

During the meeting with Edwards, Song provided translation for the members of the delegation that did not speak English. Despite the language barrier, however, many of the members already knew a considerable amount about Chautauqua County, including the shift in industry that it has seen in the last 50 years, away from furniture and towards advanced manufacturing.

“They had great questions,” Edwards said. “I trust that they’ll leave here with a better idea of what life in Chautauqua County is like and what opportunities and challenges we have here. They were very well informed about this area already, and I was impressed with their commitment to understand the area that they were visiting. I look forward to more exchanges with them in the future.”

The group will conclude their tour today with a farewell breakfast at Jamestown Community College, followed by a trip to Niagara Falls. After spending the day shopping, the delegation will be flying to New York City. For more information about the Jamestown YMCA and the programs that they offer, call 664-2802 or visit jamestownymca.org.