PALMER — Palmer Junior Middle School students and staff welcomed seven students from Saroma, Japan, during a special assembly on Wednesday.

It was a high energy, enthusiastic display of cultural exchange, community pride and long lasting friendships and traditions spanning nearly four decades.

“I see the power of exchange… Seeing our students grow in Saroma and stepping outside their comfort zone, their struggles. But they make it through and seeing that growth, whether or not they go on to do Japanese, that is going to empower them no matter what they do,” Carla Swick, president of the Palmer Saroma Kai, said.

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Palmer and Saroma have been sister cities since 1980. Palmer Saroma Kai is a nonprofit organization that helps raise funds for the Sister City program.

Palmer’s Saroma School Delegation is comprised of middle and high school students. Students from the delegation handed out Alaska-themed gifts to the Saroma students.

Earlier this year the city hosted a Palmer Pride event where speakers highlighted the program and held a new event called the Sister City Noodle Chute.

The annual exchange between the cities’ students and residents is something each community anticipates each year. Palmer Mayor, Edna DeVries was one of several guest speakers at the PJMS welcoming ceremony. She expressed that the Sister City program was one of Palmer’s most coveted traditions and warmly welcomed the visiting students.

“I think in Palmer you’ll see that we have great community spirit,” DeVries said.

During the introductions, PJMS assistant principal Ryan Geagel took time to acknowledge the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, the date of the terror attack in New York. Everyone shared a moment of silence for the scores of lives both lost and forever impacted in that fateful day in 2001.

Both the American and the Japanese flags were hung up on the wall on the gymnasium wall. The PJMS choir sang Japan’s national anthem “Kimigayo” and the United States’ national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

During the ceremony, middle and high school exchange students from Palmer and Saroma all stood in a row in the middle of the gym. One by one, they introduced themselves and passed the microphone down the line. They each spoke Japanese and English.

In June, Palmer middle and high school students traveled to Saroma. They shared about their favorite memories and experiences from their immersive stay overseas.

The Saroma students are geared up to do the same for the next two weeks, staying with host families while attending Palmer schools. Each Saroma student shared some of their main goals during their stay, from hiking to making many friends.

There was a relay game at the end of the assembly with Palmer students and staff and the Saroma students all a participating. Smiles and laughter were not in short supply.

According to a brief history from the city of Palmer’s website, a Palmer resident named Edward Holmes contacted Saroma resident Mutsuhiro Ishiguro via ham radio in 1977. Frequent conversation ensued, ultimately leading Holmes to visit Ishiguro in Saroma in April of 1980.

A month later, two communities were forever bound. They officially became Sister Cities, sending their culture, students and residents 2,893 miles across the Pacific Ocean each year.

These trips include short and long-term student exchanges, work-study exchanges, linguistic teacher exchanges, official delegations, and “simply friends visiting friends.”

“The friendship that Ed and Mutsuhiro helped start back in 1980 continues today. It is a friendship that has touched and even transformed many lives. Their legacy will live on as future generations experience the friendship of our two cities.” according to an expert of program history on the city of Palmer website.

Much like the strong friendship between Holmes and Ishiguro, another close bond was formed through the two counties’ yearly exchange. In 1987 Swick was a junior in high school. She made a lifelong friend during her first year entering the program.

“Thank God I listened to the morning announcements that morning,” Swick said with a laugh.

Swick met Yuko Hirouchi, who was also “getting her feet wet” in her first year the program, acting as a translator on behalf of the Saroma City Hall. Now, Hirouchi is the exchange program coordinator for Saroma. The two have both been in the program for 32 years and share a sisterly bond.

“Saroma absolutely is my second home… just having that connection for so long. It is so easy to communicate… kind of like your family. You can say what you need to say,” Swick said.

In July of 2020 a Palmer delegation comprised of Palmer residents and students will travel to Saroma, Japan, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of their Sister City relationship.

“I really did get to know my community of Palmer through this program… this was the connector to me for my city,” Swick said.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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