Sending your child to another country can be a scary proposition. Sending one into a country about to wage war to stay with strangers you have never met in a town you have never seen takes a leap of faith -- faith that by sharing your children with another family, you will take a small step toward world peace.
At a time of terrorism and talk of war, heightening cultural awareness is a key ingredient in overcoming barriers of misunderstanding and stereotypes. Understanding and appreciating your neighbor's cultural differences and similarities is the basis of the Hands Across the Border Foundation. HATB has worked for almost 20 years in Arizona and Mexico linking schools across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pine-Strawberry Elementary School has been a part of the program for 15-years. Having outgrown the tiny desert town of Cucurpe, Sonora --heir original partner -- the school met a new partner school in Hermosillo.
Alerce is a private school in the capital city of Sonora and has been searching for an exchange partner for three years. Junior High teacher and HATB coordinator Gary Fischel and Alerce's School Director Martin Yepiz and Curriculum Director Maria Alejandra Tena met in the fall to map out their exchanges, deciding that Alerce would come to Pine-Strawberry first, in the hopes that students might see snow.
So Sunday, Jan. 26, Alerce packed up 11 of their fifth- and sixth-grade students for a week trip to Pine-Strawberry. Once here, the students would meet their partner for the first time.
Brave pilgrims on this maiden journey, the students are paving the way for years of exchanges between these two communities, Yepiz said. They left their families in Mexico and were welcomed as family in their new homes in P-S.
"You have to come. There is nothing to be scared of," sixth-grader Alan Velasquez Fontanot of Alerce said after a week with P-S sixth-grader Joey Sprinkle and his family.
"Everybody is very friendly. When you do something wrong, they will not laugh at you. They accept you into their family because it is your new mom," Fontanot said.
During their week, the students attended a traditional flag ceremony at Pine-Strawberry School, and even participated by formally presenting a Mexican flag to the school. They spent time in some of the classrooms reading stories in Spanish and English and they played soccer. On a group field trip, they journeyed to the Tonto National Monument to learn about the Indian civilizations that populated this area long before there was a U.S. or Mexico.
Alerce's sixth-grade student Danielle Marquez made the trip because she wanted to practice her English and meet new people.
"The family gave me lots of attention," she said though a translator of her sixth-grade partner Brittany Berge and her family. "They were so cool."
The week-long trip was celebrated Thursday night with a potluck dinner and show at the school. After the partners and their families shared a last meal, the P-S clowns Fizzles and Flambe and Marshal McCloud from the Forest Service entertained them. The evening ended with the Mexican-born tradition of breaking a piñata.
Friday morning, the Alerce students loaded into vans and waved adios from the windows as they left for the long journey back to Hermosillo.
Pine-Strawberry students and families will now make preparations for their first trip to Hermosillo, scheduled for Feb. 24 through 28. During that week, the 11 students from P-S will be the guests in a strange land. Their partners will take the opportunity to reciprocate the hospitality, welcoming a foreigner into their home and family.