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Volunteers resurrect sister city program

Just a couple years ago, Gresham's sister city association was pretty much broke and all but defunct.

Now, with 20 visitors from South Korea on their way to Gresham, local residents are opening their homes to host dinners for dignitaries and house students.

Ten exchange students, as well as 10 business and government officials, from Gresham's sister city of Sokcho, South Korea, will arrive in Gresham on Thursday, July 21.

The delegates will visit Gresham businesses, tour local companies and explore the Portland and Gresham area, said Kim Ell, president of the Gresham Sister City Association.

And while that's pretty routine for a sister city visit, what isn't is the level of community involvement in welcoming and entertaining the visitors.

After their Thursday arrival, delegates will spend Thursday evening with Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, who is hosting dinner at Persimmon Country Club.

On Friday, July 22, The Gresham Kiwanis Breakfast Club will host the delegates to breakfast at the M and M Restaurant before joining two sister city association board members for a local tour, ending with dinner hosted by the association at 4th Street Brewery.

Saturday the delegates will visit the Gresham Historical Society and the Gresham Farmers' Market before touring Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. The day ends with dinner at the home of local resident Rockie Park.

Delegates leave on Monday, July 25, but the exchange students are staying with local host families until Aug. 5. With help from the community, the Gresham Sister City Association also has planned activities for them.

Students will visit the Oregon Zoo via MAX from Gresham City Hall, tour a Gresham fire station, meet city councilors and experience an old-fashioned American barbecue hosted by the Gresham Soroptimists at the home of Tony and Cindy Passannante, who is the sister city association's marketing director.

Gresham City Councilor Paul Warr-King, along with his wife, Mary Jo, who happens to be an association board member, also will host a farewell dinner for the students.

Warr-King, a longtime supporter of Gresham's sister city relationships, said renewed citizen involvement is breathing new life into the organization.

And just in time.

'Frankly, it's because we didn't have any money to entertain them,' he said referring to visitors from the city's three sister cities: Sokcho, South Korea; Ebetsu, Japan; and Owerri, Nigeria.

Back when those relationships were established - Ebetsu became the city's first sister city in 1977, followed by Sokcho in 1985 and Owerri in 1991 - the city funded Gresham's sister city association, which hosted dinners and its members served as regional ambassadors.

The exchanges led to ties that benefited the city, both culturally and economically. Boyd's Coffee in Gresham set up a coffee house in Ebetsu and sister city relationships were largely credited with bringing Fujitsu Microelectronics to Gresham in the 1980s, Warr-King said.

But over the past decades, as Gresham tightened its budgetary belt, it slowly cut funding for the sister city association to the point of it becoming little more than a student exchange program, Warr-King said.

'It almost kind of went dormant,' Ell said of the program.

And while Bemis and Warr-King paid for their own trips to Korea and Japan last year, lest the community call them junkets, the governments in Gresham's sister cities continue to fund their programs and pull out all the stops to entertain Gresham leaders when they travel overseas, Ell said.

'And here we are basically having bake sales,' Ell said, adding that Bemis even hosted a fundraiser at his restaurant to fund his trip.

In 2009, nine of the association's 12 board members were replaced, bringing new energy and ideas, Ell said.

Earlier this year, the association held a fundraiser at the Caswell Gallery in Troutdale, which Ell called a 'huge success.' The association is applying for grants and is now part of the Oregon Cultural Trust. And next summer, Gresham celebrates the 35th anniversary of its first sister city relationship - an occasion sure to be feted by the association, which will call for yet more fundraising innovation.

'It's encouraging,' Warr-King said of the revamped association. 'And we hope to keep it up.'

He also hopes it leads to more economic activity for the area. For example, the Korean delegates are touring Gresham's Trailblazer Foods. Given the current craze for all things blueberry in Asia, it could be a good contact, Warr-King said.

'Who knows what it will lead to,' he added.

Anyone who wants to volunteer with Gresham's Sister City Association, host an exchange student or help entertain delegates should contact the association at greshamsistercity.org.