Volunteers with Port Alberni Abashiri Sister Society gather at Alberni Elementary for their annual meeting. (MIKE YOUDS PHOTO)

Port Alberni’s twin city exchange society seeks students

Cultural trips to Abashiri, Japan originated more than 30 years ago



Student exchanges with Port Alberni’s Japanese sister city continue to provide invaluable experiences, yet they fall short on one count: the number of kids participating.

“Nothing replaces real life experience,” said Erin Watkins, a district teacher who accompanied a group of four students to Abashiri in July.

“Just seeing these kids in this situation. They had an amazing time.”

Watkins and Tia Watts, 12, shared their trip highlights with volunteers behind the Port Alberni Abashiri Sister City Society. The two coastal communities on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean have been sister cities since 1986. Every other year for the last 32, a group of local students has visited Abashiri on northern Hokkaido. Abashiri students reciprocate on alternating years.

“I saved everything,” said Watts, who collected souvenirs of favourite experiences.

Helped by financial support from her Tseshaht First Nation community, Watts had her first flight in an aircraft as the youngest participant this year.

READ MORE: Abashiri students visit Port Alberni

Dave Grant, a retired district principal, recalled early exchanges on which there were more than 60 students and a dozen adult chaperones.

“Now it’s hard to find four children,” Grant said.

Back in the 1980s, Port Alberni had a robust economy and more families were able to afford the expense and the community helped out through fundraising activities. Companies auctioned logs to chip in while both the Port Alberni Port Authority and school district were involved, Grant said. Now, the five- to 10-day midsummer exchanges cost $3,500 with airfare as the greatest expense, although community fundraising remains a possibility in order to offer some financial assistance.

Nonetheless, the society is determined to carry on, its members firmly convinced that cultural exchanges provide worthwhile experiences.

“We were really touched by how important this was to them,” Watkins said of their attentive hosts. “How much energy and love goes into the exchange.”

“They treat you like royalty,” Grant said.

Home stays with Japanese families tend to be a highlight, reflecting the cultural value of the experience.

Laurie Morphet, a teacher who has long organized the trips, said they hope to find more people to go in 2021, particularly young people between the age of 11 and 18. It would be sad for Port Alberni to lose the opportunity after so many years, she said.

Anyone interested can contact Morphet at 250-735-0917.

A group from Abashiri is scheduled to visit in January 2020.

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Teacher Erin Watkins and student Tia Watts, 12, were part of a Port Alberni exchange group that visited Abashiri, Japan, in July. (MIKE YOUDS PHOTO)

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