Amid waiting game, Wilsonville sister city group rethinks program
Due to pandemic-induced international travel restrictions, the revamped sister city program that facilitates the decades-long relationship between Wilsonville and Kitakata, Japan is in a state of limbo.
And yet the Kitakata Sister City Advisory Board, which is tasked with steering the program in a better direction than it had been in the past, is meeting to prepare for whenever these restrictions are lifted and student exchanges and delegations can begin anew. Exchanges in both 2020 and 2021 were canceled.
"We are waiting. We know the U.S. will be opening for tourism for international countries. But we haven't heard anything on their (Kitakata) end (about when travel could commence). They are wanting to ramp up and have monthly meetings between the two cities. I'd say that's a good thing," said Ashleigh Sumerlin, who is the chair of the newly-created Kitakata board overseen by the city of Wilsonville.
The sister city relationship between the two cities was formed in 1988 and has included regular exchange trips for local students since then. In addition, mayors and other local officials have traveled across the globe to connect with their counterparts.
The group was previously run as an independent nonprofit and struggled to garner enough volunteers and donations to provide Kitakata delegations with as expansive of an experience as what the Japanese city, which has strong government and business support, gives to Wilsonville residents traveling to Japan. The Wilsonville government adopted the sister city program in 2020 and designated $20,000 for the program for the current fiscal year. The board serves in an advisory role to Wilsonville City Council.
"It was quite a challenge sometimes to keep it going. Everyone loved what we were doing, but it was still difficult to maintain," Sumerlin said. "With the city's backing we have the city funding a lot of the necessary things we would need to expand and have outreach to the community."
Despite being the youngest member of the new board, Sumerlin has been a part of the sister city program since she traveled to Japan as a high school student in 2006. She's since chaperoned trips there and hosted visiting Japanese families and knows firsthand the benefits of international acclimation.
"There's just this connection that you make with these people that are different and similar to you. You feel like you have a better understanding of the world or how another culture works," Sumerline said. "It's pretty eye-opening when you go over there. There's a pretty big culture shock initially and you sort of go with the flow with everything you want to do and begin to understand a little bit more."
Sumerlin said the board is made up of people with a variety of expertises including in business and higher education. Now, the board is thinking of ways to engage the community so that more people get to have a similar experience. Possibilities include hosting large events to let people know about it, as well as cooking classes and tea ceremonies to give locals more familiarity with Japanese culture.
"Hopefully with it being taken over by the city we will have a larger outreach," Sumerlin said. "Before, it was challenging to find host families for the students."
They also want to start a pen pal program for students from the two countries to regularly communicate with each other. Partnerships with local businesses and entities could show off cultural elements of Wilsonville like hazelnut growers and breweries.
The board is close to finalizing its goals for the program and planning these efforts will take place in the future. To learn more about the program or to inquire about participation, contact the city or visit the parks and recreation website.
"We would love to have people interested and volunteers for the future events we will be planning," Sumerlin said.
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