Sister Cities International honors Hot Springs-Japan connection

— The Sister City program in Hot Springs, which has helped Spa City residents forge close relationships with residents of Hanamaki, Japan, for 20 years, has been recognized by Sister Cities International with the Best Over-all Program Award for American cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000.

Mary Neilson, coordinator of the Sister City program in Hot Springs, told the Tri-Lakes Edition on May 2 that the award had been announced.

The official announcement from the international organization was made later.

“This is a big deal for the city and the program,” Neilson said in her call. “All the residents in Hot Springs and around Arkansas should be proud of this international recognition.”

The award announcement also made note of Hot Springs’ “compassionate exchange” with its sister city in Japan.

Neilson, who is also the international-visitors liaison for Visit Hot Springs, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said the award recognizes the program’s work over the last year, especially the way both communities reacted to news that Japan was struck by a major earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

According to the notification sent by Sister City International, the award recognizes programs that “advance the goals and mission of the Sister Cities movement” and that “demonstrate outstanding accomplishments.”

The earthquake and its aftermath strengthened the link between the two cities. According to reports from Icharo Fudai, coordinator of the Sister City program in Hanamaki, the city experienced tremors from the earthquake that knocked people to the ground and cut electrical power for days. The city is about 40 miles from the coastal area that was bhardest hit by the quake and tidal wave.

Soon after the disaster struck, Hanamaki received more than 1,000 refugees from the devastated area, much like Hot Springs received hundreds of new residents who fled during the evacuation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

To help Hanamaki care for its new residents, the Hot Springs Sister City program helped collect more than $25,000 in aid from the city and around Garland County.

“After Katrina, our friends in Hanamaki collected funds to assist those who came here,” Neilson said. “School children there raised more than $3,500 to assist the evacuees.”

Neilson said the Sister City program had a tremendous year in late 2011.

“We had four delegations from Hanamaki within six weeks in the fall,” she said. “Two delegations from Hot Springs traveled to Japan as well.”

One delegation of 16 people from Hanamaki attended services at the Apostolic Faith Tabernacle Church in Pearcy on the Sunday before Thanksgiving and shared a Thanksgiving meal with church members in thanks for the community’s support and aid to Japan.

The congregation of the small church donated more than $2,000 to the relief efforts.

“This was a celebration of thanks for their city to have gotten through a rough year, with the help of their friends here,” Neilson said after the dinner.

Another delegation from Hanamaki included a group of traditional Japanese dancers who performed in Hot Springs Village and at a Hot Springs elementary school.

“A group of teachers was scheduled to visit Hanamaki in June of last year, but [the trip] was canceled in April when things were still uncertain,” Neilson said. “However, in that same month, parents signed up their children to visit in September. I admired the courage of their parents when the safe thing would have been to say they were not going.”

The Japanese government commended the Hanamaki-Hot Springs Sister City partnership in 2010 as one of the top programs in Japan.

Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission and Visit Hot Springs, said in a release about the award that the commission is proud to have assisted the Sister City program in its accomplishments in the last two years.

Visit Hot Springs provides money and administrative support to the program.

Neilson said the Sister City program will be busy during the next few months, as four teachers will make a trip to Hanamaki in June, 13 students will travel to Japan in September, and a citizens delegation will go over soon afterward.

She said two student delegations from Hanamaki will visit Hot Springs in the fall and early in 2013.

“If we can get to know people from other places - really get to know them as individuals and friends,” Neilson said in an earlier interview, “we can help promote world peace by becoming educated about their culture.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes, Pages 133 on 05/13/2012

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