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Sep 15 2013

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Sister Cities cultural-exchange initiative formed 25 years ago

By A. Marie Ball
Posted Jul  30, 2013 @ 10:30 PM
Last update  Jul 31, 2013 @ 09:28 AM

 

Zack Claflin doesn’t like flying.

But he was willing to put that aside for an opportunity to experience  Japanese culture first-hand.

“Both my parents are anthropologists, so that kind of thing was bred into  me,” he said.

Claflin got his chance 11 years ago, when he flipped through a newspaper and  spotted an ad for the Sister Cities Association of Springfield’s  annual student delegation to Ashikaga, Japan. Eighteen students ages 14-19 and  two adult chaperones spend 10 days getting to know Springfield’s oldest sister  city.

For 25 years, the association has been working to connect Springfield and  its citizens to the outside world by reaching out to two other Sister Cities  organizations — in Ashikaga, since 1990; and in San  Pedro de las Colonias, Mexico, since 1996.

It all started in 1988, when Springfield was looking for a way to form  relationships that extended outside the United States.

“We live in central Illinois, and people felt like we really are part of a  larger world,” said Carol Zerkle, who chairs the association’s Ashikaga Committee, “and because we’re not part of a coastal  area or a large city like Chicago, there’s a need for Springfield to have a  meaningful contact with other cities, and Sister Cities was a good vehicle for  that.”

The majority of those first two years was spent laying the groundwork for  Springfield’s Sister Cities chapter.

Ashikaga was first

The first relationship was formed in October 1990, after Springfield schoolteacher Lynda Benoit, a Fulbright  scholar, returned from Ashikaga. She convinced then-Mayor Ossie Langfelder that  Springfield should make Ashikaga its “sister,” Zerkle said, so the two formally  agreed to share the “cultural, historical, educational, governmental and  economic” aspects of their communities.

The deal was sealed when the mayor of Ashikaga signed the partnership  agreement in the Hall of Representatives of the Old State Capitol.

Six years later, San Pedro became another “sister” after Ricardo Gonzalez of  San Pedro and Mick Bernasek, who chairs the San Pedro Committee for Springfield,  signed an agreement under then-Mayor Karen Hasara for mutual exchange between  the two cities, as well as allowing college and adult delegations to visit,  according to Bernasek.

Those partnership  agreements were the essential factor in Springfield becoming “sisters” with  both Ashikaga and San Pedro. But the terms of the agreements can vary, depending  on the needs of the cities in question.

Today, the Sister Cities Association of Springfield is one of many such  organizations worldwide. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the Sister  Cities concept in 1956.

Zack Claflin doesn’t like flying.But he was willing to put that aside for an opportunity to experience  Japanese culture first-hand.“Both my parents are anthropologists, so that kind of thing was bred into  me,” he said.Claflin got his chance 11 years ago, when he flipped through a newspaper and  spotted an ad for the Sister Cities Association of Springfield’s annual student  delegation to Ashikaga, Japan. Eighteen students ages 14-19 and two adult  chaperones spend 10 days getting to know Springfield’s oldest sister city.For 25 years, the association has been working to connect Springfield and  its citizens to the outside world by reaching out to two other Sister Cities  organizations — in Ashikaga, since 1990; and in San Pedro de las Colonias,  Mexico, since 1996.It all started in 1988, when Springfield was looking for a way to form  relationships that extended outside the United States.

“We live in central Illinois, and people felt like we really are part of a  larger world,” said Carol Zerkle, who chairs the association’s Ashikaga  Committee, “and because we’re not part of a coastal area or a large city like  Chicago, there’s a need for Springfield to have a meaningful contact with other  cities, and Sister Cities was a good vehicle for that.”

The majority of those first two years was spent laying the groundwork for  Springfield’s Sister Cities chapter.

Ashikaga was first

The first relationship was formed in October 1990, after Springfield  schoolteacher Lynda Benoit, a Fulbright scholar, returned from Ashikaga. She  convinced then-Mayor Ossie Langfelder that Springfield should make Ashikaga its  “sister,” Zerkle said, so the two formally agreed to share the “cultural, historical, educational, governmental and  economic” aspects of their communities.

The deal was sealed when the mayor of Ashikaga signed the partnership  agreement in the Hall of Representatives of the Old State Capitol.

Six years later, San Pedro became another “sister” after Ricardo Gonzalez of  San Pedro and Mick Bernasek, who chairs the San Pedro Committee for Springfield,  signed an agreement under then-Mayor Karen Hasara for mutual exchange between  the two cities, as well as allowing college and adult delegations to visit,  according to Bernasek.

Those partnership agreements were the essential factor in Springfield  becoming “sisters” with both Ashikaga and San Pedro. But the terms of the  agreements can vary, depending on the needs of the cities in question.

Today, the Sister Cities Association of Springfield is one of many such  organizations worldwide. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the Sister  Cities concept in 1956.

“His thought was by establishing these relationships at the municipal level,  people in these cities would have business relationships, and personal  relationships,” Zerkle said. “These are ties that bind.”

Cost-effective trips

Claflin became part of the 2002 delegation, living with a host family who  taught him about Ashikaga, and Japan in general.

He learned that it’s common for three generations of a family to live under  the same roof. Shoes were to be replaced with slippers when entering a  household. And Claflin said the Japanese are just as excited about a fermented  soybean dish called natto as Springfieldians are about the horseshoe.

“It feels like they try to scare you with it, like we do with the horseshoe,”  he said. “They try to hype it up as this weird thing they have. But I think the  hype is greater than the actual food.”

Overall, Claflin enjoyed the lifestyle, and the food, of Japan, making return  trips to Ashikaga in 2008 and 2010. On Tuesday, he again left for Ashikaga to  spend at least a year as an assistant language teacher at one of the city’s  schools, helping with the English as a Second Language Program.

Anyone interested in making connections with Ashikaga is invited to be part  of either a student or an adult delegation. And for those interested in going to  San Pedro, either a college delegation or an adult delegation is available.

“It’s a trip that would be very expensive to do on your own,” said Janet  Kenney, president of the Sister Cities Association of Springfield. “But since  you’re being hosted by a family, and most of the time they’re feeding you, it  really cuts down on the cost.”

‘Very relaxed’

Springfield families typically host the Sister Cities visitors from Ashikaga  and San Pedro.

A group of 18 students from Ashikaga comes to Springfield every September.  Currently, Anna Joselin del Torro,  Lucia Sifuentes Gomez, Pamela Jimenez Maldonado, Edgar Leonardo Ibarra, Karla  Babun and Dulce Ramos are the six college students visiting from San Pedro.

Since their arrival July 1, the six have been all around Springfield,  including visits to Lincoln’s tomb, his home and Knight’s Action Park.

“It has many things for tourists,” Ibarra said of Springfield, which he  described as “pretty nice.”

“It’s very relaxed,” Gomez added.

Springfield Fire Chief Ken Fustin, who made a Sister Cities trip to  San Pedro himself last January, believes Gomez feels this way because of the  armed guards that patrol San Pedro on a regular basis, after the city had been  controlled by a drug cartel for several years.

“Mick used the term ‘laid back’,” Fustin said. “I can see how in our  environment, you could think that. The heightened sense of security (in San  Pedro) is amazing.”

San Pedro also has a very dry climate, so when the six students arrived  in Springfield, Bernasek said one of their common comments was, “It’s so  green.”

Gomez, Maldonado and Babun noted that there isn’t a mall in San Pedro.  They were happy to find one here where they could buy clothes. And all of them  were especially excited about going to the waterpark.

“We generally will try to ask them at the beginning where they want to  go and what they want to do,” Bernasek said. “Obviously, the Lincoln sites are a  slam dunk, we’re going to do that. Then we generally try to develop what we’re  going to do after that.”

Comparing cultures

While in San Pedro, Fustin and his delegation got to visit San Pedro’s city  hall, university, and try dishes Fustin calls “some of the best Mexican food  I’ve ever had.”

Fustin was also able to spend a couple of hours at San Pedro’s fire  department, where they are still using a fire truck the Springfield Fire  Department donated in 1992.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “I had never been outside the  United States. It was just a good experience to see how different the other  customs they have are. It just reinstates my appreciation for humanity and how  people can really live and exist with very little means.”

When Fustin and the six San Pedro natives made their delegation trips,  they were representing their respective cities. However, the Sister Cities  Association of Springfield also has delegations that cater to a specific focus,  like the woodworking and water gardening delegation that will travel to Ashikaga  this fall. In August, runners will come from Ashikaga to participate in Abe’s  Amble.

And at some point, Bernasek said he would like to see San Pedro’s  soccer team compete against the one from Lincoln Land Community College.

“I think that Eisenhower was correct,” Zerkle said, “that by getting to know  people in other places, and how they live and work … the common understanding of  that opens up entirely new vistas.”

A. Marie Ball can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1517.

Springfield’s two ‘sisters’

The Sister Cities Association of Springfield has Sister Cities, or cities in  a mutual agreement to exchange different aspects of their cultures, with both  Ashikaga, Japan, and San Pedro de las Colonias, Mexico.

The annual membership fee to be part of the association is $25 for  individuals and $35 for families.

Ashikaga

Ashikaga is a city of 150,000 people 50 miles north of Tokyo. It contains  Ashikaga Gakko, the oldest school in Japan.

Students are taught English from sixth grade on. A school day typically runs  from 8:30-2, and then the students are responsible for cleaning the school until  3 p.m., since Japanese schools do not have janitors. Grade levels, like those in  America, start out with first through sixth. In high school, grades 1, 2 and 3  are the Japanese equivalent of the American grades 8, 9 and 10. In college, the  grade level goes from 1 to 3 also. Students attend “cram school” for extra  lessons to prepare for tests they must take in order to be accepted into both  high school and college.

The Japanese currency is called yen, with the equivalent of 100 yen equal to  $1. The Japanese can fish, but hunting is banned, and the Japanese cannot brew  their own beer, either.

Those interested in visiting Ashikaga can contact Ashikaga Committee chair  Carol Zerkle at SCASILINC@aol.com.

San Pedro

San Pedro de las Colonias is in Coahuila, one of the 31 states of Mexico.  Like Springfield, San Pedro is a city of roughly 100,000 people.

Whereas Springfieldians have ties to Abraham Lincoln, residents of San Pedro  are proud of Francisco Madero, Mexico’s 33rd president and one of the leaders of  the Mexican Revolution. Madero was not born in the city of San Pedro, but rather  in the same state. A major holiday celebrated by San Pedro and the rest of  Mexico is Mexican Independence Day on Sept 19. Another major holiday is El Dia  de los Muertos, or “The Day of the Dead,” a day to remember deceased loved  ones.

In San Pedro, as well as Mexico in general, the equivalent to the  American first through sixth grades is called “primeria.” Next is “secondaria,”  for grades 7-9, and “preparatoria,” for grades 10-12. San Pedro has two smaller  colleges.

Those who want to visit San Pedro via the Sister Cities Association of  Springfield must be 18 or older. College delegations typically last for three  weeks to a month, while adult delegations usually last for about a week.

For more information, contact San Pedro Committee chair Mick Bernasek at m.bernasek1@comcast.net.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.illinoissistercities.org/?p=2415

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