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Toledo welcomes a parade of nations

The stick-on name tags tell the tale: Mae from Fort Worth, Bob from Pasadena, and William comes from Carrickfurgus, Ireland.

If U.S. embassies in China, Kenya, Mozambique, and Nigeria get moving, 188 more registered guests will be cleared to join the multi-cultural crowd at the Sister Cities International convention downtown.

Toledo is no stranger to conventioneers from faraway places, but this week it opens its doors to the world. Up to 600 people from the United States and 24 other countries around the globe will attend events Wednesday through Sunday at SeaGate Centre and the University of Toledo. On Friday, Patricia S. Harrison, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, will give the keynote speech during the Lou Wozar annual awards luncheon at the SeaGate Centre.

Sister Cities International is a grass-roots diplomacy program that pairs similar cities and towns in different countries to share in cultural and economic development while establishing personal friendship ties.

Don Jakeway, president of the Toledo Regional Growth Partnership, said the conference is “one of the premier international events that will happen in the country this year.” The partnership, which is the region's leading economic development agency, believes the Sister Cities program actively boosts the local economy, so it's backing $10,000 of the conference's estimated $230,000 cost. The remainder is being funded by corporate and private donations and registration fees.

About 90 percent of the conference delegates will be from United States cities; the rest will hail from towns in other lands that have forged cultural, economic, and friendship ties with American towns through the program.

Toledo has been involved in Sister City-type activities for years, but the local branch became truly active in 1990, when the city faced high unemployment and low morale.

“We needed to stop Toledo's downward spiral by reaching out to the world, through education and culture and business,” said John Henry Fullen, executive director of Toledo's Sister Cities program. “Our mission is to internationalize Toledo, bring Toledo to the world, and bring the world to Toledo. It's a way for regular Toledoans to participate in helping their city grow.”

Ten years later, Toledo has one of the most active Sister Cities programs in the nation. It has hosted 1,200 visitors from 15 countries in Toledo programs ranging from two weeks to a month. Inter-city relationships helped build Toledo's $1 billion annual export business, Mr. Fullen said, by introducing representatives from more than 70 local companies to visiting international businessmen and political leaders.

“This is ground-level citizen diplomacy,” Mr. Fullen said. “You can think what you want about a country or a policy, but once you've met an actual person from there, your view changes. You realize that ‘international' is not a bad word.”

The first contingent of conference delegates rolled into town Thursday when 13 youths from Korea headed for the 70-strong youth academy portion of the convention, which offers intensive English classes, tours of area attractions, and stays with local families. Thirteen more teens arrived yesterday from Poland, ready to help for two weeks with city-center cleanup and service projects.

“It's a sort of Peace Corps in reverse,” Mr. Fullen said.

The tourist tide will rise Wednesday and Thursday, when the gathering kicks into gear with receptions, a Parade of Nations on St. Clair Street, workshops, awards luncheons, and regional forums.

Leaders from three Ukrainian towns will hover around Government Center for the week following the convention, seeing how American cities engage citizens in community development projects.

In an effort to let other Sister Cities members in the Great Lakes region know what's going here, local multilingual volunteers have been calling more than 1,000 program members in neighboring states to urge them to drive over for at least a few sessions.

“We have people coming here from China, at their own expense,” Mr. Fullen said, “and I think some of these [Americans] are staying away because they just never considered coming to Toledo. They don't know about what Toledo has to offer.”

Mr. Fullen had to travel to Toledo to discover its charms. He grew up in California, son of a globe-trotting family. He came to Toledo in 1990 to persuade his aging grandmother to join the family out West.

“After staying here for just a week, I realized it would be cruel to move her,” he said. “She lives in the Polish neighborhood, and the caring, neighborly attitude, the decency of the people, it all reminded me of the things I like best about towns overseas. So I decided to stay.”

Mr. Fullen speaks Polish. He volunteered at the International Institute, where he linked up with the Polish contingent of the Sister Cities International program: a group paired with Poznan, an industrial city in Poland. The second time he attended a meeting, he found himself elected vice president.

Toledo's first Sister Cities relationship began in 1931, with its Spanish city namesake. The connection between Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, is recognized as one of the first Sister City relationships in the United States. The Glass City has since added seven more sisters: Londrina, Brazil; Qinhuangdao, China; Szeged, Hungary; Poznan, Poland; Toyohashi, Japan; Tanga, Tanzania; and Csongrad County, Hungary, a “sister county” for Lucas County.

In 1992, the Toledo Sister Cities program reformed itself from a scattering of small nationalistic groups to an integrated non-profit operation with two office cubicles, a 10-year-old computer, and a telephone at Government Center. It had marching orders, handed down from Toledo City Council and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, and a board of community leaders, to work together as a unified group. And it had Mr. Fullen as its executive director.

Culturally, Toledo has heard the strumming of a zither orchestra from Hungary and plaintive choruses of a Zulu choir from South Africa. A boys' chorus came from Poland, opera singers and dance from China, and photography from Japan. Toledo has sent politicians, businessmen, students, artists, artwork, musicians, and others to its sister cities, paid-for through fund-raisers, grants, and corporate sponsorships.

In 1998, the Voices of Tomorrow Youth Choir, a gospel ensemble drawn from 22 Toledo schools, went on a nine-country tour that included stops in Toledo, Spain; Szeged, Hungary; and Poznan, Poland.

“There was an indescribable warmth felt in our Sister Cities,” said choir director Quinsey Hammond.

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