Phoenix’s Sister Cities program spreads the Phoenician footprint far and wide.
Last September, the Arcadia Little League 11- and 12-year-old team was supposed to travel to Tainan, Taiwan, for a baseball tournament. A few weeks before they were to leave, an outbreak of Dengue fever, focused centrally in Tainan, worried the team and ultimately killed the trip.
A member of Arcadia’s Little League board of directors knew Rick Gerrard, Deputy Director of Phoenix Sister Cities, the local link in the global network of sister-city programs. Among its many municipal siblings, Phoenix shares sister status with Taipei, Taiwan – a dramatically less-infected area than Tainan at the time. Within days, Gerrard and the staff of Taipei Sister Cities had arranged a full new trip for the Arcadia team. They spent six days exploring the culturally and historically significant sites of Taipei in the mornings, playing baseball games against a Taipei team in the afternoons (they went 3-2), and eating traditional Taiwanese cuisine at night.
“It turned out to be much better than I think we ever expected,” says David Davis, president of the Arcadia Little League. “In our darkest hours of planning we didn’t think [the trip] was going to happen, and [Phoenix Sister Cities] provided us a ray of light.”
Taipei was one of the earliest Phoenix sister cities (see sidebar), born into the family in 1979 by Mayor Margaret T. Hance. Today, the Phoenix program – which encompasses 10 cities from around the globe – is one of the most admired in the U.S. Within the past two decades, it’s been named the Best Overall Program in the United States for cities with a population of 500,000 or more nine times (including for 2014).
Sister Cities International formally began in the U.S. in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested a citizen diplomacy program. It has grown to include more than 2,000 cities, states and counties partnered in 136 countries.
Unlike most governmental programs, it’s run almost entirely on volunteer gusto – on top of a meager but dedicated four-person staff (and a handful of interns). Each “sister” gets her own local committee, which meets monthly to plan events and fundraisers. (As a registered 501(c)(3) organization, Sister Cities relies almost completely on private funds, along with some city bonds.) For the fiscal year 2014-2015, the program logged nearly 171,000 volunteer hours. “Community involvement is the most important element,” says Paula West, president and CEO of Phoenix Sister Cities.
In fact, the sister cities relationship is usually born out of community involvement. “It’s very grassroots,” West says. “Each one has a different story.”
One of Phoenix’s newest sister relationships, with Ramat Gan, Israel, was initiated by the Valley’s Jewish community. West said they approached then-Mayor Phil Gordon around 2005 and inquired if a relationship was possible with their holy land. Once such an inquiry is made, the Phoenix city council sets up a “founders’ committee,” normally composed of private citizens. The committee, along with program staff, typically visits the country of choice, speculates on possible sisters, and then draws up an official document once one is chosen (and she accepts, of course). The mayor then signs off on the declaration, and a sister is born.
And sisters look out for each other.
Today in Chengdu, China, tucked into a small village, there’s a kindergarten with a phoenix bird on the side of it. It’s called the “Phoenix School,” and even its architecture is modeled after Valley kindergartens. In 2008, Chengdu suffered a devastating earthquake. The Phoenix Sister Cities program hopped to – and quickly raised nearly $280,000, according to West’s estimates. Chengdu officials chose to put the money toward rebuilding a school that had been demolished. “They had us take photos of schools here in Arizona and send them to them,” Gerrard remembers. He and West traveled with a small delegation to Chengdu for the groundbreaking ceremony.
“I think [that] was one of the most moving experiences that I’ve had,” West remembers with a shaking voice. “They would come up, and the looks in their eyes... you know they were saying ‘thank you.’”
In 2009, a daycare center burned to the ground in Hermosillo, Mexico. More than 50 toddlers and babies died. In the wake of the tragedy, Phoenix Sister Cities’ staff and volunteers rolled up their sleeves again. “We wanted to develop a burn center in Hermosillo,” Gerrard says. As it stands now, burn victims in Sonora are either airlifted to U.S. hospitals if they are minors or taken to Guadalajara or Mexico City as adults – but most just can’t make it that far. So Phoenix started raising money, and has been able to give enough for the hospital in Hermosillo to begin work on a burn center. Additionally, Sister Cities has worked with the Maricopa medical system to train between 30 and 40 nurses and 20 medical students from Hermosillo in burn care.
The sisterly concern goes both ways. When Phoenix was a newbie to the light rail game, the city sent a delegation of transportation professionals to Calgary, Canada, to learn from their successful system. Hermosillo has hosted Phoenix firefighters and police officers for Spanish-language training. And perhaps most notably, each sister city has hosted student ambassadors from Phoenix.
The Youth Ambassador Exchange Program sends Phoenix high school sophomores and juniors abroad to sister cities for three weeks each June. The students stay with host families and then return to the U.S. to host their own ambassadors for three weeks.
Sister-city ambassadors are administered a full dose of American and Arizona culture upon arrival. “We do activities like visit the Musical Instrument Museum, the mayor hosts a welcome reception, and of course there’s the fun stuff like going to the Grand Canyon,” says Bethany Bennick, the Youth and Education manager for Phoenix Sister Cities. This past year the group celebrated Halloween in July and served at St. Mary’s Food Bank. “It’s a jam-packed three-week experience,” Bennick understates.
West says Phoenix interacts with each of its 10 sisters at least once per year. As a result, there are handicap-accessible elevators in Hermosillo, a school in China, a developing burn center in Sonora, the cheerful syrupy remnants of a Veterans’ Remembrance Pancake Breakfast in Calgary, and a handful of students scattered across the globe who discovered an American Halloween for the first time. And in Phoenix, there’s a budding light rail system, a Japanese friendship garden and an Irish Cultural Center.
The sisterly bond is indeed a special one.
Sister City Roll Call
Calgary, Canada – Sister since 1997
Calgarian snowbirds helped sustain AZ real estate during the Great Recession; nonstop air routes make for an easy visit.
Catania, Italy – Sister since 2001
Second-largest city in Sicily; famed for its baroque architecture, views of Mount Etna and sulfur production.
Chengdu, China – Sister since 1986
By far the largest of our sister cities (2010 pop.: 7.4 million), the “City of Hibiscus” is Western China’s economic capital.
Ennis, Ireland – Sister since 1988
Our smallest sister (2011 pop.: 25K) sits on the River Fergus in Ireland’s wet midwest; known as a transport and market town.
Grenoble, France – Sister since 1990
Famed for its bubble-shaped cable cars and views of the Alps, it hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics; also a sister of Catania.
Hermosillo, Mexico – Sister since 1976
Geographically our nearest sister city (417 miles), it’s even more scalding than AZ in the summer. Avg. July high: 108 degrees F.
Himeji, Japan – Sister since 1976
Home of Himeji Castle, a 400-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site; our second-longest-standing sister next to Hermosillo.
Prague, Czech Republic – Sister since 2013
The jewel of Bohemia is a sightseeing bonanza; attractions include the Charles Bridge and 15th-century orloj clock.
Ramat Gan, Israel – Sister since 2005
Located east of Tel Aviv, this high-tech hub is home to a major diamond exchange and Israel’s tallest building.
Taipei, Taiwan – Sister since 1979
Like Phoenix, the Taiwanese capital is a magnet for monsoons; it’s also embracing, with 12 sister cities in the U.S. alone.
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