The “clubs and organizations” focus of this month’s iBi is most timely from many perspectives. In no small measure, the quality of a community is a product of the volunteer energies and hours devoted by its citizens to worthwhile causes. Within the City of Peoria municipal structure, there are 33 boards and commissions that carry on critical advisory, oversight and support activities. The one I would like to address is the far-reaching work and global impact of the Peoria Sister City Commission.

This is the group of volunteers who plan, coordinate and communicate the activities of Peoria’s relationship with our sister cities: Friedrichshafen, Germany; Benxi, China; Clonmel, Ireland; Aitou, Lebanon; and soon, Jwaneng, Botswana. The commission’s members include a representative of the “Friends” committee for each of the five communities. It is actually the Friends of Friedrichshafen, Friends of Benxi, Friends of Clonmel—and soon, the Friends of Aitou and Friends of Jwaneng—that plan and accomplish the people-to-people exchanges.

Peoria is among more than 2,000 cities, states and counties spread across 136 countries who are members of Sister Cities International. In 1956, President Eisenhower proposed a program of people-to-people citizen diplomacy to create and strengthen partnerships among communities around the world. Having witnessed firsthand the destruction, waste and human ruin of World War II, he recognized that a long-lasting understanding begins at the community level—that citizen-led efforts could go far beyond what government can do to secure peace and prosperity. Originally a program of the National League of Cities, Sister City International became a separate organization in 1967 due to its popularity.

Credit for getting Peoria started on the path of international city-to-city partnerships goes to Mayor Richard E. Carver. In 1976, he provided leadership in creating the Friends of Friedrichshafen to guide the partnership between Peoria and this German city with strong ties to Caterpillar through Cat’s dealer affiliation. The sister-city relationship with Friedrichshafen, Peoria’s first, was founded on a “three-legged stool” encompassing education, commerce and social activities, and in the 38 years of this partnership, both cities have experienced many diverse benefits. In fact, a group of 12 Peoria students, ages 15 to 19, are on a three-week education exchange in Germany until early August. Remarkably, this is the 36th consecutive youth exchange! Hats off to Tammie and Patrick Roesler for planning, hosting and chaperoning these exchanges.

The Friends of Friedrichshafen actually preceded the formation of the Peoria Sister City Commission. A common denominator of both is the current commission chair, Rex Linder, who was instrumental in helping Mayor Carver get the original partnership off the ground. He has served as president of Friends of Friedrichshafen and just about every other position necessary to make it a success. He and his wife, Laurie, have made numerous trips to Friedrichshafen, hosted German visitors, and attracted friends, financial support and enthusiasm to the overall Sister City initiative.

In 1994, the Friends of Benxi was formed to create people-to-people ties with Benxi, China. This partnership has been somewhat slower to mature in the same nature as Friedrichshafen, due in no small measure to Chinese restrictions on individual travel. However, given that this is the 20th anniversary of the relationship, we are optimistic for a revival of the partnership.

Sixteen years ago, in 1998, the Friends of Clonmel organization was formed, and this sister-city bond has grown into a robust, enjoyable relationship. Strongly rooted in the social aspects of sister-city dynamics, great credit goes to Leo and Jo Jordan. Leo, along with Jim Spears, originated the idea of a sister city in Ireland, and after a couple of false starts with other communities, they settled on Clonmel in County Tipperary. As it turns out, there was a remarkable resemblance to Peoria already in place through many colorful and friendly Clonmel personalities, similar to Peoria’s extended Spears family. In fact, it has been said that there are more Spears in Clonmel than in Peoria! That question is an endless tale of Irish folklore on display at Jimmy’s Bar in West Peoria. Kudos to Tim and Jolene Doyle for many years of hard work to make the Clonmel relationship successful.

In June of this year, the City Council approved a sister-city partnership with the ancient community of Aitou, the ancestral home of many of Peoria’s ethnic Lebanese families, located in northern Lebanon. With a population of 1,200, Aitou is Peoria’s smallest sister city, but given the character of Peoria’s Lebanese business and political leaders, I am convinced it will become a truly rewarding and active program of educational and cultural exchanges.

Almost two years ago, I met the Botswana ambassador to the United States. We realized immediately the connections between Botswana and Peoria, largely due to extensive diamond operations filled with Caterpillar and Komatsu equipment. That meeting led me to visit Jwaneng last year, along with City Manager Patrick Urich and others from Peoria, where we witnessed a growing, urbanized community at the center of the mining industry. In June of this year, Peoria was proud to host the mayor of Jwaneng, Amos Jahana; his city administrator; and other business colleagues for a most productive exchange to continue the exploration of Peoria’s fifth sister-city relationship.

It’s evident that our sister-city program is truly global, diverse and beneficial in the fundamental purpose envisioned by President Eisenhower—people-to-people citizen diplomacy. The educational, social and commercial potential is enormous. With a dedicated, well-led Sister City Commission and energetic, active “Friends” committees, we certainly don’t have to stop at five. Look at Peoria’s changing demographics: let’s encourage the exploration of partnerships with communities in India, Italy and Mexico, for example.

My heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers, both here and in our sister cities, for making these relationships productive, educational, enjoyable and successful. People-to-people diplomacy in action! I believe President Eisenhower would be proud indeed! iBi