Sayonara, sister students

May 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Since 1965, it's been an annual summer event: A group of Detroit high schoolers travel to Japan in odd years, Japanese students come here in the even ones.

The exchange program is part of the Sister Cities program for Detroit and Toyota, a town of about 350,000 people on the south coast of Japan. Students and their chaperones visit local sites, meet people, share homes, learn a new culture and make lifelong friendships that put a face on a foreign place.

But this year, it's not happening, a victim of the city's budget cuts — and we suspect other, uh, distractions in the mayor's office. What's that you say? The Kwamster's in court again.

"It really is a shame because this is one of the real success stories of both international relationships and one of the good things the city has been doing for years," says Richard Berlin, a retired Detroit teacher who has hosted Japanese visitors and chaperoned American students.

With a sour economy and tight budgets, we're not surprised the program was threatened. The real problem is, the city didn't tell anyone it was canceled. Jane Everhart, a longtime volunteer with the project, heard about it last week from a woman in Japan who has chaperoned students and visited Detroit.

"I got an e-mail asking me to explain what's happening," Everhart says. "My friend wrote to me to say, 'What's up? Is it budget or something else?' I was not aware they weren't coming."

Everhart's friend had read a local Japanese newspaper article about the program's cancellation.

Everhart called the city, but got no answers beyond confirmation of the cancellation because of the program's roughly $10,000 expense in organizing transportation, host families and other events.

We also tried asking Kizzi Montgomery, the administrator in the mayor's office responsible for the program, about the cancellation but she immediately sent us to mayoral spokesman James Canning.

He wouldn't say much beyond confirming "budget constraints" would prevent Detroit from hosting Japanese students this year.

We wanted to know when the decision was made, whether volunteers were given the opportunity to raise funds for the program and how the city will ensure next year's exchange will happen.

No response.

Meanwhile, Everhart is upset and worried about the city's already besmirched image. She offered to do fund-raising to save this year's program, but the mayor's office said no, it was too late.

"This is a pet project of mine. Having been involved in it for this long and as closely as I have, for them to just say we're not going to do something that we've done for more than 40 years is asinine," Everhart says. "It makes me upset. It makes me angry. It puts our city, I think, in bad light over there."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]