Mt. Pleasant’s sister city plans in limbo due to COVID-19, but relationship remains strong

Mt. Pleasant may be a small town, but its Sister City partnership links two continents and spans thousands of miles. This partnership with Okaya, Japan was formed in 1965 to promote international cultural exchange and continues to prioritize that goal today. However, the coronavirus pandemic is grinding efforts to a halt and forcing the sister cities to postpone one of their most prominent programs.

The International Relations Council, Mt. Pleasant Area, oversees Mt. Pleasant’s Sister City partnership. One of the IRC’s main projects is an exchange program between Okaya and Mt. Pleasant high school students. The program allows six-to-eight high school students to travel from Mt. Pleasant to Okaya or vice versa. These students are accompanied by a chaperone and spend two weeks living with local families and enriching themselves with an understanding and appreciation for their host country’s culture.

“These kinds of exchanges are a critical part of fostering international relationships and help the people of the world to live together in peace,” says Kathy Ling, who represented the City of Mt. Pleasant on the IRC as City Commissioner from 2008-2019.

The City of Mt. Pleasant presents a sculpture, created by local artist Colette Phillips, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sister City relationship at Friendship Park in Okaya, Japan in 2015. On the right are Okaya Mayor Ryugo Imai and members of the Okaya City Council. On the left are Mayor Jim Holton and his wife Karen, former mayors Bruce Kilmer, Cindy Kilmer, and Kathy Ling, Judy Pamp representing the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, and 13 other Mt. Pleasant representatives.

During even numbered years Mt. Pleasant high school students travel to Okaya and during odd numbered years students from Okaya travel to Mt. Pleasant. Since the beginning of this year, Mt. Pleasant students have been planning for their 2020 trip to Okaya, which is currently scheduled for the beginning of August. While no official decision has been made, the trip may be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Ling. Ling says that if the trip is postponed, it could be rescheduled for summer 2021.

“Generally speaking the program has been every other year and it may be that there will be two exchanges in one year or we’ll move the schedule forward,” says Ling.

A delegation of Okaya students who visited Mount Pleasant in 2017 pose in front of the Okaya Dori road sign that leads into Nelson Park, where many trees given to Mt. Pleasant by Okaya City were planted.

While COVID-19 poses an unprecedented challenge to international relationships, Mt. Pleasant and Okaya have shown dedication to their partnership over the past 55 years and as long as it does not pose a health risk, the exchange program will continue to encourage cultural sharing. Ling believes the difficulties of COVID-19 may even strengthen the partnership and deepen understanding between the two diverse cities.

“It will just be another thing that we are both dealing with at the same time because, of course, Japan is also dealing with the outbreak too,” says Ling, “I think it will in some ways enhance the relationship because we are learning more about each other.”