WBHS students travel to St.-Lô, France with Sister Cities program
VINTON–Some motorists traveling on Route 220 know that when they pass the “Wonju Street” exit near Towers Shopping Mall, they are seeing a tribute to one of Roanoke’s Sister Cities, Wonju, Korea.
Few realize that across the Atlantic, in St.-Lô, France, there is a Sister City tribute to the Roanoke area, “Le Pont de Roanoke”, the Roanoke Bridge.
President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the Sister Cities movement after the Korean War to “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation, one community at a time.” The Roanoke Valley Sister Cities program had its beginnings in 1964 with Wonju.
When Dr.Young Kim trained at Roanoke’s Jefferson Hospital from 1956-1958, he felt so welcomed and loved by the community that he vowed never to forget Roanoke. Several years after he returned to Korea, his city asked for suggestions for an American city to partner with in the new Sister Cities initiative. Kim proposed Roanoke.
Since then, the Roanoke Valley has added six other Sister Cities, the most recent St.-Lô, in 1998. Participating cities share in setting goals, hosting, and funding the programs.
This summer, Cammie Williams who teaches French at William Byrd High School and serves as vice chair of Sister Cities, accompanied a group of students from William Byrd and Cave Spring High Schools to St.-Lô as part of the Sister Cities exchange program.
St.-Lô was the scene of a violent battle between American and German forces after D-Day in 1944. The Army’s 29th Division, 116th Infantry Regiment, including many Virginians, liberated St.-Lô on July 19, 1944.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Sergeant Bob Slaughter of D-Day Memorial fame and other area veterans accompanied President Bill Clinton to France. They toured the beaches of Normandy and the town of St.-Lô, where they met individuals liberated by the US Army in 1944. They invited the French to visit Roanoke where talks ensued about uniting as Sister Cities.
The two cities made it their goal to honor veterans through youth exchanges and college internships so that the appreciation of the two cultures and the history is transmitted to the next generations.
Thus far the exchanges between Roanoke and St.-Lô have involved students and teachers from St.-Lô coming to Roanoke to visit during the school year, groups from the Roanoke area visiting St.-Lô during the summer, and college interns from St.-Lô spending the summer in Roanoke.
In April 2010, thirty-two students, three teachers, and eleven other adults from the St.-Lô area visited Roanoke. Another group visited in November 2011.
Williams supervised the visits, found host families, and planned activities for the visitors who spent one week here and one in Washington and New York.
The groups toured downtown Roanoke, hiked the Star Trail to Mill Mountain, and visited the Peaks of Otter. They watched a baseball game in Salem, and had outings to Smith Mountain Lake, the D-Day Memorial and Monticello. Some of the adults who came from the American-French Hospital in St.-Lô toured Carilion’s medical complex and Roanoke Memorial.
The students from St.-Lô spent two days in local high school French classes, conversing with students on chosen topics from family to music to sports.
The seven students who traveled to France this summer with Williams had previously hosted students from St.-Lô.
“Through the Sister City program, my family and I had the chance to share in a great adventure,” said Keenan Holt, a senior at William Byrd. “Early in the school year we were given the opportunity to welcome a young Frenchman named Benoit into our home. He stayed with us for one week and during that time he told us all about his home, family, school, and country.”
“As we took Benoit back to his bus at the end of his journey I imagined how amazing it would be to one day visit him and his family on French soil. The Sister City program along with Ms. Williams made that dream a reality. I was also given a great challenge by making this trip after completing only one year of learning the French language,” said Holt who is currently enrolled in 4th year German, 2nd year French, and 1st year Latin.
“As I arrived in France I became very nervous because I was unsure of my communication ability,” said Holt. “That was quickly put to rest as I discovered the people of France to be very inviting and patient when I tried to communicate with them. By the end of my time in France I was able to not only speak with more confidence, I was also able to understand and comprehend the language much better.”
In preparing for the trip, Williams surveyed her students to determine what activities they were most interested in. What they wanted most was time with their host families to become immersed in the culture.
The group spent the first four days in France seeing the sights in Paris—the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral–and exploring the City.
Once they reached St.-Lô, the students toured the town, and spent time in La Madeleine, a restored 13th century chapel devoted to the events of 1944. In Williams’classes they had translated the diaries of the curator, Jean Mignon, who had survived the liberation of St.-Lô.
Williams and her students toured the beaches of Normandy and the American cemetery which overlooks Omaha Beach, the site of the D-Day invasion.
“France is a country overflowing with history,” said Holt. “Some of the most meaningful moments for me were visiting the old cathedrals, walking through the streets of Mont St. Michelle, enjoying a picnic lunch along the River Seine, and standing on the beaches of Normandy looking at the machinegun nests and thinking about all of the brave American soldiers, who were just barely older than myself, giving their lives during WWII fighting for the liberation and freedom of the entire world.”
Students spent the remainder of their time with their host families. The Americans spoke French almost exclusively; the French spoke English.
“They all made amazing progress in just a week’s time,” said Williams. “Not only does the program improve language skills, it also fosters lifelong friendships.”
St.-Lô is now a village of 20,000, with a large vibrant downtown. The surrounding area remains largely agricultural with dairy farms and apple orchards, famous for their sparkling ciders and for Calvados apple brandy.
It is also a medieval town dating from the ninth century, now one of the most modern in France, because it was almost completely rebuilt after the devastation of World War II when nearly 95% of the town was destroyed.
“The French were just grateful to be liberated,” said Williams. “They treasured their freedom more than their buildings. There is little resentment towards the Americans because without the bombings, they wouldn’t have their country. Plus the Americans helped them to rebuild.”
“This experience opened my eyes,” said Holt. “As Americans, we are blessed to have the chances to define our own cultures based on the many different influences from world travelers who have made the journey across the oceans, started new lives, and shared their routines, skills and ideas. In the melting pot of America, life tends to run at an extremely fast pace. Going to France gave me the chance to experience life and daily routines in a new and exciting way. I would recommend this opportunity to any student who has an interest in learning more about cultures and personalities of those in other countries.”