Columbia honored for Sister Cities partnership

Pictured, from left, is Illinois Sister Cities Association President Paula B. Randant with Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson, Sister Cities International State Coordinator Josephine C. Wittenauer and ISCA Sister City of the Year Award Committee member Nancy Devereux during the award presentation. (submitted photo)

Columbia has been selected as 2013 Sister City of the Year by the Illinois Sister Cities Association.

Ingrid Soraghan of the Columbia Sister Cities group said they received the phone call from ISCA President Paula Randant last Tuesday.

Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson was able to accept the award Friday morning during the Municipal League Conference in Chicago.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of our partnership with Gedern, Germany,” Soraghan said. “This recognition reflects the efforts of so many who have contributed to the success of our program and developed personal bonds of international friendship.”

Soraghan said the honor is highlighted by the most recent three-week student exchange visit in April, a 10-day guest adult visit in May, and the continued collaboration and communication between these two cities despite the distance apart.

“We also greatly appreciate the support of our Mayor Kevin Hutchinson and city government,” she said.

Hutchinson also praised the constant communication between the two cities and said the Sister Cities organization has impacted both cities in a positive way.

“President Eisenhower would be proud of the Columbia Sister Cities,” he said. “They exemplify his vision of diplomacy on a person-to-person level.”

Hutchinson said current Gedern Burgermeister Klaus Bechtold, and Burgermeister Stephan Betz before him, exchanged stories, ideas and concepts with him that bettered both of their communities.

“Those person-to-person conversations would not have been possible were it not for the flourishing relations built by the Columbia Sister Cities organization,” Hutchinson said.

A group of 45 guests from Gedern were hosted by 26 families in Columbia and the surrounding area in May, which was capped off by a special banquet at Turner Hall commemorating 20 years of the Sister Cities partnership.

In April, 24 German students visited Columbia as part of a three-week student exchange visit, hosted by 24 Columbia families in a program organized by teachers from Gedern and Columbia High School. Next year, CHS students will travel to Germany in keeping with the partnership.

Taylor Nickerson, the German teacher at CHS, said both the student and adult exchange programs are huge draws for this community.

“Every year, we have an informal meeting for our sixth graders to let them know they’ll have this opportunity when they get to high school,” he said. “It’s a huge, huge deal for our students.”

Nickerson said he is excited for next year’s trip to Germany — 21 CHS students are currently signed up.

“That’s our biggest group ever,” he said. “It’s so important to foster that bond and understanding between two different cultures.”

Since Columbia has such a rich German heritage, Nickerson said it is so important that continued efforts keep the younger generations informed and cultured.

“This program gives the kids the opportunity to see a culture outside their own and help them understand that there’s a bigger world outside of Columbia,” he said. “It’s a first-hand, real life experience.”

Nickerson said the program is unique because it not only gives members of the community the chance to go to Germany, but also the opportunity to host an exchange student or adult from Gedern.

“The program is a huge draw,” he said.

Hutchinson is hopeful this partnership will continue to be strong in the future.

“Congratulations on the Illinois Sister Cities of the Year award, and I look forward to another award-winning 20 years,” Hutchinson said.

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