May 01, 2018 01:07PM ● Published by Maleesa Johnson
Barbara Walker can’t help but smile as she recalls the bizarre circumstances that landed her on a private tour of a Chinese zoo. While serving on the board of directors for Southlake Sister Cities, she took a trip with other Southlake residents to Wuzhong, China – Southlake’s newest friendship city. While there, her host asked if there were any sights the group wanted see. She jokingly said “pandas,” but within 24 hours, the host delivered by
taking them on an incredible zoo tour.
"It is truly a remarkable experience,” she says. “You cannot replicate this through a vacation or travel agency.
Stateside, she volunteers with Katy Hintze for Southlake Sister Cities. They serve as first vice president and president, respectively. The organization is a nonprofit dedicated to educating students on different cultures through hands-on experience. While Barbara was on an adult trip, the vast majority of trips are for students only. The program is an exchange program, so students from Wuzhong, China and Southlake’s original sister city, Tome, Japan, routinely come here as well.
“Through the years we've probably sent about 250 Southlake youth,” Barbara says. “At least that many come here.”
A Rich History
Sister Cities International, the organization that Southlake Sister Cities is under, was created at President Eisenhower’s 1956 White House conference on citizen diplomacy. In his speech at that conference he stated: ““The purpose of this meeting is the most worthwhile purpose in the world today – to help build a road to peace.”
Through that, sister cities were born as a means of cultural exchange. The mission reached Southlake 26 years ago, thanks to founders Kiko and D. Ekstrom. They worked with city council to establish Southlake’s first sister city: Tome, Japan.
"Our mission is to come to peace through mutual understanding,” Katy says. “The kids get it. They understand maybe more than we do."
Sister cities are not just fun titles, they are relationships between municipal governments that involve formal agreements recognized by Sister Cities International. The City of Southlake is deeply involved with the program, as it provides 80 percent of the nonprofit’s budget.
More Than Exchange Students
Katy says she became interested in volunteering for Sister Cities “the normal way” – through her son. Prior to going on the trip to Tome, he wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to go after high school. The instant he got back, he wanted to study international business.
"It changed his life. It changed his whole perspective on things,” Katy says.
Barbara’s kids have also gone on sister city trips, and the family has also hosted students. It is a common misconception that the program is an exchange in the sense that you must host if your child is hosted in Japan or China. While that is not the case, Katy finds that many family actively volunteer to host once their kids return from their trip.
Despite language barriers, many friendships have been born out of the program as well as the cultural exchange. Barbara has fond memories of this from when her family hosted a Japanese student. Barbara’s oldest daughter, Chloe, had already been to Tome, and was inspired to learn origami. When the exchange student stayed with the Walker family, Chloe helped teach the student origami. The student was stunned that Chloe was so proficient in an art so culturally centered in Japan.
"While the exchange may only be a week, the relationships last more than a week,” Barbara says.
Above all, the trips give students the opportunity to see things outside of their usual bubble while also serving as a representative of Southlake. When a student signs up for a Sister Cities trip, they are called student ambassadors.
"It's nice for the kids to see that the United States isn't the end of the world, but It's a big responsibility,” Katy says. “You're representing Southlake and you're representing the United States."
As far as who can go, the trips are open to students 13 years old and up. Katy says a wide variety of students go, from Belles to student athletes to band and so on.
“We get the gamut,” she says. “It's a diverse group."
The China and Japan programs both cap at 10 students per trip. Barbara says they routinely fill up, but she is amazed they don’t max out every time. Trips take place during March and June and cost a total of $2,000 for everything except personal expenses such as buying souvenirs.
"You don't need to be a business tycoon, you don't need to be a politician,” Barbara says. “You create citizen ambassadors and you do this enough times and you replicate this over and over and you've made an impact.”
In its 26 years of operation, Southlake Sister Cities has never failed to send students annually. Both board members speak highly of the program, and you can tell it's because they believe in what they are doing. And with both ladies’ kids having such positive experiences, parents can rest assured that the program is safe and more than worth it.
"I've always been excited about our mission, but when I look at the world today, I think what we are trying to accomplish is more important than ever,” Katy says.