A lot of people go their entire lives without ever leaving the country, but thanks to Keokuk Sister Cities, many young students get that opportunity early on.
The program has been doing an ambassador exchange program with Kai-shi, Japan for over 20 years and it has impacted a lot of people who have been involved.
Mackenzie Hawkins has been to Japan three different times with the program and said it greatly affected her future.
“In traveling to Japan and experiencing the culture and stuff, I actually decided to make that my career path,” Mackenzie said. “It was really just a great experience for me all around.”
Groups of children, ages 13-15, have been going over to Japan from Keokuk since 1998 on an every-other year basis.
In turn, Japanese students will also come to Keokuk to experience American culture and will also stop in Washington D.C. on their way back.
Mackenzie said the culture change can be a shock first, but the people are incredibly friendly.
“We have our differences and misunderstandings because of the language barrier, but everything was always figured out and we always had fun no matter what we did,” Mackenzie said.
Group president Shannon Tackes said they are currently in their hosting year and are accepting applicants to be host families.
The goal is to introduce the Keokuk students to Japanese culture and see if they take an interest in it.
“They’ll host their friends from Japan, then they’ll also want to travel over to Japan in 2020,” Tackes said.
With the group, the hope is to have people who get close to one another.
“We like to have a group that is almost like a little family,” vice-president Chantel Hawkins said.
The group is looking for outgoing students who can represent Keokuk and are willing to try new things.
Even though the trip is not until 2020, they have already started fundraising and getting kids ready for the experience.
This experience includes days with planned activities, but also Free Days where host families will take the students to different areas and introduce them further to the culture.
Mackenzie said one of her favorite experiences was going to Tokyo Disneyland on one of the Free Days.
Host families in Keokuk have taken students to things such as the St. Louis Arch, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and are planning on taking this summer’s group to the Iowa State Capitol.
Tackes said the Free Days are a large part of what the program offers.
“Some of the most amazing memories come from the free days,” Tackes said. “That’s when the bonds are really formed.”
Chantel said the program has created some lifelong friends over its history and Mackenzie still talks to people they hosted over the years.
She also said her favorite part of the program is seeing all the relationships that are built.
“It’s fun to see them blossom over the summer and how at the end of their time here everyone is in tears and nobody wants to part, they want to stay together. They keep that friendship going for a long time,” Chantel Hawkins said.
Tackes was in strong agreement with Chantel.
“Just the friendships and the families that you make that are lifelong, that’s my favorite part,” Tackes said.
The group currently has 13 students signed up and anyone looking for more information, they can reach out to Keokuk Sister Cities on the group’s Facebook page, going to the website, keokuksistercities.weebly.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students that go with the group to Japan in 2020 will have an even rarer opportunity than normal.
Japan will be hosting the 2020 Olympics and Tackes said the group has been guaranteed one Olympic event for each student and adult ambassador.