In 1985, Fort Worth Sister Cities incorporated after a group of dedicated volunteers performed countless hours of research to bring the dream of a strong, non-profit, citizen diplomacy organization to life in the City of Fort Worth.
Shortly thereafter, Reggio Emilia, Italy became Fort Worth’s first sister city, and the organization began actively planning exchanges and programs to interact with its first partner.
The first inbound exchange took place in 1986. Fort Worth invited and hosted 135 runners from Reggio Emilia to run in the annual Cowtown Marathon. Also In 1986, Fort Worth Sister Cities was awarded the Readers’s Digest award for Best New Program.
In 1987, just two short years from incorporation, Fort Worth signed two new sister city partnerships: Trier, Germany; and Nagaoka, Japan. The organization also hosted the Sister Cities International Annual Conference, bringing hundreds of people from all over the world to Fort Worth, Texas.
Fort Worth Sister Cities rounded out its first five years with the creation of a program designed to foster peace and understanding in youth: the International Leadership Academy. For 25 years and beyond this program would bring youth from Fort Worth’s ever-growing sister city family together to discuss global issues, work out cultural differences, and find those common threads that unite us all.
The year of 1990 was an enormous year of growth, as well as recognition for Fort Worth Sister Cities. Not only did Fort Worth become the first ever US city to form a Sister Cities partnership with a city in Indonesia, but we also signed a second sister city, Budapest, Hungary.
This year marked our first diplomatic mission to Washington D.C., where members of the board of directors visited the embassies of our sister cities and met with Ambassadors and staff to further strengthen our relationships and gain insight into the goals and values of our sister cities.
In 1990, Fort Worth Sister Cities won the National Sister Cities award for Best Overall Program for the first time. This was followed one year later by the receipt of the prestigious Reader’s Digest Award for Best Overall Youth Program for the International Leadership Academy.
In 1991, the organization enjoyed a second breakthrough for youth with the creation of the Harashin Scholarship Program. Through this program, Shinichi Hara, CEO and President of The Harashin Company, Ltd, provided full travel scholarships for eight students and two teachers each year to travel from Fort Worth to Nagaoka and equal scholarships for the reciprocal exchange.
In 1992, Fort Worth Sister Cities won the national award for Best Overall Program again. With all of these accomplishments, the organization was poised on the brink of the next decade with five very active sister city relationships, an annual international youth leadership academy, a reciprocal youth scholarship program, two of the highest national honors a sister cities program can receive, and two Reader’s Digest awards.
In 1996, Fort Worth Sister Cities held its very first Mayor’s International Dinner, an annual fundraiser and gala that would continue to elevate the awareness of Fort Worth Sister Cities in the community as well as raise crucial funds for operations for well over a decade.
In 1997, youth athletes from Fort Worth would represent the USA at the first Olimpiade del Tricolore, a youth-based version of the Olympics. Fort Worth was the only American city invited to participate because of its strong relationship with Reggio Emilia.
In 1998, Fort Worth added a sixth city to its sister cities family: our neighbor to the south, Toluca, Mexico. The search for a Mexican sister city spurred a new and innovative process of research, one that would prove valuable in searches to come.
In 1998, the organization was awarded Best Overall Program for the third time, a testament to its active sister city relationships, dedication to the tenants of the national Sister Cities program, and for the intense dedication of its volunteers and staff. In 1999, the national office awarded founding mother and crucial volunteer, Mary Palko, the Sister Cities International Volunteer of the Year award for her role in making Fort Worth Sister Cities a strong and viable program as well as her selfless dedication to the mission of the organization.
In 2000, the organization created an award named after former Fort Worth Mayor, Bob Bolen. The Bob Bolen Award for Outstanding Board Leadership honors a member of the board who shows extraordinary dedication to the mission and provides exemplary leadership toward the goals of the organization. In 2000, the recipient of the first ever Bob Bolen Award for Board Leadership was Mike Hyatt.
On September 11, 2001, 68 delegates were enjoying a cultural exchange in the city of Trier, Germany when they learned of the terrorist attacks on American soil. The citizens of Trier, as well as Lord Mayor of Trier, Helmut Schröer, truly exemplified the compassion and understanding that the sister cities program fosters. As the American delegation could not travel home to be with their loved ones, the city council hosted every member of the American delegation in their Catholic Conference Center. The citizens of Trier held a candlelight vigil in the town square and a special church service to pray with the Americans. To show their support, they created two condolence books at city hall for citizens to express their sentiments to the Americans. Those books, filled with 14,000 poems and expressions of sympathy and kindness, were presented to the Fort Worth City Council, November 6, 2001. This event, though born of tragedy and sorrow, fostered a deep and enduring friendship between the people of Trier and Fort Worth, and resulted in numerous local programs that would enhance the Sister Cities program for decades to come. Fort Worth Sister Cities closed out 2001, an emotional year filled with victories as well as tragedies, by celebrating their fourth Sister Cities International Award for Best Overall Program.
With an even greater dedication to the advancement of international and cultural understanding, Fort Worth Sister Cities focused the programs of 2002 to work more stringently and directly upon peace. The year of 2002 brought the first People to People for Peace Conference to the City of Fort Worth. The P3 conference was developed as Fort Worth’s response to the events of September 11. Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr called upon Fort Worth Sister Cities to create an open dialogue between local and international city and youth leaders to discuss real-world tactics for achieving peace in our communities. The 2½-day conference was scheduled during Fort Worth Sister Cities’ International Leadership Academy and was designed to challenge participants to think about issues related to peace. The innovative approach and inclusion of youth in this program lead to Fort Worth Sister Cities being awarded a national Sister Cities award for Innovation in Youth Programming.
Also in 2002, Fort Worth Sister Cities participated in the first September Concert, a program created by the September Concert Foundation that unifies a series of free concerts organized by individuals, schools, businesses, and associations to bring communities together, reaffirm our hope for peace, and to celebrate life and our universal humanity. To this day, concerts are held on September 11 in all areas of the world to create a global day of music for peace.
To further the youth educational programs of Fort Worth Sister Cities, the organization began participating in Sundance Santa, a program that provides photographs with Santa Claus. This program raised $15,000 in youth scholarships.
The year of 2003 was an incredible year for Fort Worth Sister Cities. The organization created a new program to increase and sustain young adult membership and to bridge the gap between youth and adult programs. The name of this new program was the Global Alumni Program (GAP) and proposed by a group of former youth participants. After approval, this group actively began contacting every youth member who had ever been on a sister cities exchange for the purpose of keeping them actively engaged through annual reunions, educational programs, and travel opportunities. This program won the 2003 national Sister Cities award for Innovation in Youth Programming.
In 2003, Fort Worth Sister Cities had the opportunity, through a US Department of State grant, to work on a reciprocal Emergency Preparedness program with its Indonesian sister city, Bandung.
Six delegates, including city officials, medical experts and water department officials traveled from Bandung to Fort Worth for a week of training, meetings, and facility tours. The delegates received training on a variety of subjects including public health systems, bioterrorism, Emergency Operations Center management, and disaster exercises. This program was designed to develop the emergency preparedness capacity of the City of Bandung as well as to support the Sister Cities goal of increasing international understanding. This program won Fort Worth Sister Cities the national award for Innovation in Public Safety, not only because of the benefits it provided to both cities, but also because it was an especially effective tool for improving relationships between Muslim nations and the US.
Also in 2003, Fort Worth Sister Cities received the national award for Best Overall Program for the fifth time in its 18 year history.
n 2004, the organization added its seventh sister city, Mbabane, Swaziland after overwhelming support from the community and a unanimous vote from the board of directors. This momentous and emotional signing took place in Fort Worth during the 2004 Sister Cities International Annual Conference, held in Fort Worth. The organization began its partnership with Mbabane with a truly beneficial humanitarian assistance project through the Wheelchairs for Peace program. Through this program, Fort Worth was able to send a container of 280 wheelchairs to Mbabane. Through a separate funding source, the downtown Fort Worth Rotary, Fort Worth was also able to send 100 computers for use in Mbabane schools. These humanitarian efforts resulted in Fort Worth winning the 2004 national Sister Cities award for Humanitarian Assistance.
In planning for the 2004 Sister Cities International Annual Conference, Fort Worth Sister Cities wanted to involve as many visiting youth as possible, so in addition to its annual International Leadership Academy (ILA) for high school students, which was expanded into a Youth Leadership Summit, the organization also involved junior high students with the creation of a Junior International Leadership Academy. Junior ILA was created using the guidelines of the ever successful ILA program, but in a format that could be easily understood and enjoyed by younger students.
In 2005, Sister Cities International celebrated its 50th Anniversary by celebrating at the national conference in Washington DC. In honor of the anniversary, they announced a 50th Anniversary Award to recognize sister city programs that demonstrated long-term sustainability of their sister city relationships and tangible commitments to the Sister Cities International mission. In addition to winning the 50th Anniversary award at this conference, long-time Fort Worth Sister Cities volunteer Elaine Yamagata won the highest honor an individual can receive, the National Volunteer of the Year award. At this same conference Executive Director of Fort Worth Sister Cities, Mae Ferguson, was installed as the national President to serve a two year term leading the board of directors.
In 2006, exactly ten years after beginning the Mayor’s International Dinner, Toby Darden and his dinner committee raised the highest amount recorded to benefit Fort Worth Sister Cities, $171,238.
2007 was a very active and rewarding year for the organization. This year saw the introduction of a new honor for members who had traveled to all seven sister cities: the Globetrotters Award. The first inductees were: Neil & Eva Isbell, Jim Lane, Winston & Dorothy Measures, Becky Haskin, and Mary Weaver.
Through partnerships with other non-profit organizations in the area such as Samaritan House and the Downtown Rotary Club, Fort Worth Sister Cities had a unique opportunity to be represented by Judith Dillard, a 53 year old, 18-year HIV/AIDS survivor, who traveled to Mbabane, Swaziland for “Walk The Nation,” a UNICEF program to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS. Along the 200km walk, the program provided testing and education about the widespread and often misunderstood disease. Judith was a great comfort and source of inspiration to victims of the disease throughout the walk. Participation in this program resulted in Fort Worth Sister Cities being awarded the national award for Humanitarian Assistance in 2008.
In 2007, Fort Worth Sister Cities‘ Global Alumni Program started the Yamagata Emerging Leader Scholarship for high school students. It was created in honor of two community leaders, the late Tadashi Yamagata and his wife, Elaine. This became an annual award that is open to all students who are current sophomores or juniors and have shown outstanding leadership and community involvement. It is a full scholarship, up to $2,000, for participation in Fort Worth Sister Cities exchanges and programs.
The 2008 conference brought about the receipt of two extremely emotional honors for Fort Worth Sister Cities International. Not only did the organization win the 2007 Best Overall Program for the sixth time in its 22-year history, the most that award had been won by any other US city, but the organization also won Volunteer of the Year for Shinichi Hara, for his creation of and dedication to the Harashin Scholarship Program. As of 2008, the Harashin Scholarship program had already provided international exchange opportunities for over 280 youth and had generated an estimated economic impact of over $1 million. Though the honor was received posthumously, staff member Irene Chase had the pleasure of presenting the honor at Mr. Hara’s memorial service in Nagaoka, Japan.
The year of 2008 also brought about one of the greatest cultural opportunities for the youth of Fort Worth Sister Cities with the first youth exchange to Mbabane, Swaziland. A delegation including nine high school students were home-hosted by families in Swaziland. They carried extra suitcases of clothing, household items, and school supplies that they distributed to youth at care point centers. These centers are child-headed households that are run by children who have lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS, as Swaziland currently has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. While the delegation was visiting, they received a very special treat when they were asked to meet the King of Swaziland, King Mswati III. This was a special honor indicative of the close and unique relationship Fort Worth has with not only the city of Mbabane, but also with the country of Swaziland.
In 2009, Fort Worth Sister Cities enjoyed two great successes: the largest single exchange with 174 delegates traveling to Reggio Emilia, Italy for the fourth installment of the Olimpiade del Tricolore and the receipt of a $115,000 poverty alleviation grant to be used for health, water, and sanitation projects in Mbabane, Swaziland.
In 2010, Fort Worth Sister Cities celebrated its 25th anniversary. It was a year of ups and downs as funding from the City of Fort Worth was cut by $378,000 due to budget difficulties. It survived because of a concentrated effort by the board and staff to cut expenses by eliminating 3.5 positions, raising more money through an annual campaign, and only using part of the reserves that had been accumulated for 10 years.
Even with the 86% cut in the operating budget Fort Worth Sister Cities was able to survive and thrive. In only ten months, the office moved to a new location; received its 7th Best Overall Program award; conducted the largest International Leadership Academy with 185 students and faculty; hosted two anniversary delegations led by mayors from Italy and Swaziland – 25th with Reggio Emilia, Italy and 5th with Mbabane, Swaziland; erected a directional signpost indicating the distance to each of the sister cities; and selected a new sister city in China.
Guiyang, China was officially signed as Fort Worth’s eighth sister city on October 17, 2011 in Fort Worth. Other significant programs that year included the 25th anniversary exchange to Reggio Emilia; hosting of two mayors and their delegations in Fort Worth from Budapest, Hungary and Guiyang, China; total revamping of the organization’s website; addition of new Director Emeritus, Mike Hyatt; implementation of first major gifts campaign securing $120,000; inclusion of Iraqi students in the Jr. ILA program; and 20th year celebration of the Harashin program. The organization was also presented its 8th Best Overall Program Award from Sister Cities International.
With the election of a new mayor in 2011, Betsy Price, the organization began to collaborate on international relations opportunities including the invitation through Sister Cities International to attend an energy summit in Beijing sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and for representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Fort Worth Sister Cities to attend an economic development forum in Nanjing, China which proved to be a catalyst for future commercial endeavors. Partnering with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Dallas Korean Chamber, a trade mission was also conducted with Suwon, South Korea.
In 2012, sixty-nine people traveled to China for the reciprocal signing of the Fort Worth-Guiyang sister cities partnership and 13 students and teachers from Guiyang participated in their first International Leadership Academy. The Mbabane, Swaziland Health Center Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Africa Urban Poverty Alleviation Program grant from Sister Cities International, opened in Swaziland.
In 2013, seventeen people traveled to Bandung and Bali, Indonesia and experienced a trip of a lifetime. This year we celebrated the 25th Anniversary with Nagaoka, Japan with sixty citizens from Nagaoka visiting Fort Worth and celebrating the Fourth of July with us. Nagaoka donated pyrotechnics along with technicians and media people to showcase their world famous firework choreographed with music along the Trinity River.
The board added the newest Director Emerita, Hilde Horchler, because of her many years of service to the organization and received its largest gift ever from Director Emerita, Elaine Yamagata, because of her love for the organization.
In 2014, the board undertook a major re-organization, signed a 5-year contract with the City of Fort Worth for funding, and moved its offices into City Hall. A Long Range Plan was adopted that would guide the organization for the next three years and the board launched many new initiatives.
Also during this time, the first ever trip to Vietnam took place with 20 delegates visiting Vietnam and through connections made, 20 students participated in ILA. Twenty-eight people participated in the Toluca Dia de los Muertos exchange. An inaugural program with FWISD, the Spanish Immersion Camp took place with twelve students and 2 delegation leaders from Toluca, Mexico working with 100 Fort Worth elementary students. This year we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the award-winning program International Leadership Academy.
As one can tell by reviewing this brief, but extraordinarily rich history, Fort Worth Sister Cities has a great deal to celebrate. The organization looks forward to a future of added sister city partnerships as well as other partnerships throughout the world that would be mutually beneficial for the City of Fort Worth, enhanced programs both locally and abroad for young and seasoned alike, and the enrichment of its relationships with the sister cities who share the organization’s incredible history.
We invite you to join us in 2015 and beyond as we look forward to many years of global fluency.