By David Abbott, Special to Sonoma West Times and News | Updated

Three decades of ties strengthened by middle-schoolers

For the past 32 years, Sebastopol has shared a very special relationship with its sister city Takeo City, Japan, so on March 25 Sebastopol World Friends welcomed a middle school contingent for an exchange visit until April 3.

A group of 16 middle school students, two chaperones and a group of four adult delegates have been treated to the best Sebastopol has to offer, beginning with a welcoming dinner at Enmanji Buddhist Temple that featured speeches of friendship as well as dances by students from both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

“We have selected 17 students in Sebastopol, who have been working hard to be great student ambassadors, since December 2016,” SWF board member and group chaperone Meg Mizutani said. “The group will visit Takeo in March 2018 for 10 to11 days.”

The group has been a visible presence in downtown Sebastopol, from lunch at a local pizza parlor to visits to the police and fire departments. Later in the week, there was a trip to Sonoma State University, Bodega Bay and even a day trip to San Francisco.

The trip also included a trip to the Charles Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa, shopping at the mall and a hike at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve.

Yamauchi, Japan and Sebastopol became Sister Cities in 1985. In 2008, the city of Yamauchi merged with several neighboring towns to form Takeo City.  A sign in the Sebastopol square recognizes the special relationship as do others at entrances to the town.

Analy High School history and social studies teacher Tim Forslund and his children Ainsley and Will have been involved with the program for several years. Forslund, a 21-year veteran at the school, helps prepare students for travel to Japan and plays a big role in hosting Takeo students in Sebastopol.

“This is such a unique experience for everyone involved: the students; the communities and schools. Everyone gets to share in the exchange,” he said. “It’s like a family with more than 30 years of multigenerational roots. It’s a living relationship.”

Forslund added that the exchange could not be possible without the help of a legion of volunteers from those planning activities to the families that host the Japanese visitors.

But it really comes down to the SWF motto: “World peace, one friend at a time.”

“The students have been impressed with Sebastopol. They said people in Sebastopol were very friendly, kind and welcoming,” Mizutani said. “People you see on the street say ‘hi’ or smile even if they don’t know you.”