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Liepaja-Bellevue Sister City program

By Ilze Tomsevics

The quiet, peaceful shores give way to modern high-rises, musical venues and renewed tourism across the world. Both the beaches of Liepaja and her sister city Bellevue, in Washington State U.S.A, have grown together, and helped each other become the waterfront jewels they are today.

The Sister City program began in the United States in 1956 when President Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people program.  By 1967, the program had had such rapid growth it became a non-profit corporation known as Sister Cities International.  The SCI network is now operating in 120 countries and 2,100 communities around the world.

In 1992, the City of Bellevue, Washington wanted to add an emerging democracy, from the Eastern European area, to their Sister City program- a country where the government was emerging from Soviet domination and which exhibited the greatest need for assistance.
Members of the larger Seattle Latvian community lobbied the Bellevue City Council to establish a sister city relationship with Liepaja, Latvia.  This relationship was formalized in December 1992.
 Once this relationship was established, the citizens of Bellevue became involved in cultural, governmental, economic and student exchanges with Liepaja.

The members then held several "Liepaja Live" fundraiser dinners to raise money for this non-profit Liepaja program.
One of the first projects for the group, together with the Seattle Latvians, was to supply the only high school in Liepaja, with books and basic supplies.  The school had 900 students, no pens, no paper, and very few textbooks.  Through the efforts of Dr. Zaiga Phillips and others, they shipped 7,000 pounds of textbooks, pencils, paper and other school supplies to the  Liepaja high school.
The group has also sent medical supplies and bicycle helmets to the children of Liepaja.
The program sponsored a special education teacher exchange. The Liepaja special education teachers spent 4 to 5 weeks in Bellevue, observing and learning new techniques.  In 2001, two Bellevue educators spent two weeks in Liepaja presenting workshops and learning about Liepaja's options for disable children.

 Each year the Bellevue Sister Cities Association sponsors four or more summer scholarships to send high school students from the Bellevue area to the Sister Cities, and in return hosts students from the  Sister Cities.
What makes this program special is that it is a family centered exchange - the families of the students selected to go to Liepaja host the students from Liepaja and in return, their
families host the Bellevue students. The host families involve their exchange student in their normal summer activities.

On alternating years, the program sends a Bellevue City employee to Liepaja for two to three weeks on a staff exchange, and the next year, a Liepaja employee comes to Bellevue. 
The purpose of the Staff Exchange Program is for staff of both cities to both give and receive information on issues which effect both cities' municipal governments.  This exchange provides an opportunity for staff to become more experienced in working with people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Some of the topics staff exchange members have studied have included: policing in a democratic society; affordable housing and human services; design and construction practices; community development and citizen involvement; aging and diversity.
The most recent Bellevue staff member, Ian, age 28, spent two weeks in Liepaja this past summer.  He was impressed with the Liepaja International Relations Department he worked with. 

Being in the field of communications, Ian noticed the use of more face-to-face interactions between the Liepaja city employees than he had observed in Bellevue.  Liepaja employees do have their own IT department and computers, but they still held staff meetings and face-to-face dialogs with each other. 

Ian was most impressed with Liepaja's amount of open park space and open beach areas.  While the soviets occupied Latvia, they kept the shorelines raked and clear of any and all structures in order to observe anyone trying to escape the country.  This building prohibition resulted in miles and miles of beautiful public beaches in the Liepaja area.
Ian's staff exchange experience exposed him to an area of the world he would not have considered traveling to, otherwise. 

Bellevue is a suburb of Seattle Washington, which has grown into a self-sustaining city with high-rise buildings and a regional medical center. It has a population of 118,000.