The vitality of a city often comes from connections. For Sister Cities of Newport News, Inc., and Sister Cities Yorktown, that statement is especially true. These two organizations continually revitalize their communities through the connections they build and keep with cities “across the pond.”
“It’s very intriguing for me to sit down with a group or a board and be able to make a difference,” says Debra Paulus, regarding her work as vice president of Sister Cities Yorktown.
Port-Vendres, France, has been recognized as the sister city to Yorktown since 1990. Sister Cities Yorktown received funding from York County in 2023 for the first time, although the two hadn’t been affiliated until recently. While Port-Vendres has been Sister Cities Yorktown’s focus for decades, York County itself has its own sister city — Zweibrücken, Germany.
Paulus has been a part of Sister Cities Yorktown since 2016. She was encouraged to become involved by neighbor, Don Willis, currently the group’s president. “He was so excited,” she says. “I liked that [the organization] was small — with enough people to make a difference. That delighted me.”
Paulus says the major focus of Sister Cities Yorktown remains the cultural exchange offered to its communities, allowing students and citizens to travel between Port-Vendres and Yorktown, enabling them to discover the similarities and differences of the two cities. As a nonprofit organization, the goal of Sister Cities Yorktown is to raise money to make those experiences possible for people interested in taking these trips.
Sister Cities Yorktown offers an annual Quintilla Prize, a medal named after Port-Vendres citizens, Simone and Antoinette Quintilla. As Paulus says, the prize’s mission is “to honor the commitment and dedication in goals, education and cultural exchanges between Port-Vendres and Yorktown.”
Kate Helwig, executive director of Sister Cities of Newport News, says she’s been affiliated with the organization since 2001, but was hired in January 2023. The building that supports the organization is known as CitySpace, donated by City Center Oyster Point, LLC through the Murphy Property Group. Helwig notes the citizen support and structure helps keep things moving.
Regarding the relationships between the multiple like-minded Sister City programs across the Hampton Roads area, Helwig says, “We have an organization we call Sister Cities of Virginia. We try to get together once a year to share best practices and talk about what programming is working.”
Newport News has four sister cities, each established throughout the decades: Neyagawa, Japan; Taizhou, China; Greifswald, Germany; and Carrigaline, County Cork, Ireland. Newport News has also expanded its cultural relationships through two friendship cities: Ziyang, China, and Saint-Nazaire, France. Lilongwe, Malawi, is considered Newport News’ exploratory friendship city.
With such a diverse list of cultural presences under the organization, Helwig says, “Our primary mission is to offer physical exchanges, partner with a community and have cultural, educational and economic dialogue.”
Originally managed by the City of Newport News, Sister Cities of Newport News has been operational since 1982, when its relationship with Neyagawa, Japan as a sister city began. In 1999, Sister Cities of Newport News was designated as a 501(c)(3). The exchange programs available through the organization include experiences for students, citizens and community leaders in multiple fields.
With both Sister Cities Yorktown and Sister Cities of Newport News falling under the umbrella of Sister Cities International, each organization makes its mark on the world uniquely, sharing the same objectives. With other sister city programs, the symbiotic connection keeps a similar and familiar sentiment.
Both Paulus and Helwig are excited to resume “business as usual” since both organizations and travel opportunities were affected by the pandemic.
The annual events of each sister city organization are critical to public education. The groups make appearances at Sister Cities International events, chamber of commerce events, local cultural and holiday markets and nearby festivals.
For Paulus, “Letting the community know there is a sister city offering an exciting relationship encourages travel, to visit the city. It’s really nice to be able to share. So, seven years later [since starting to work with Sister Cities Yorktown], here I am.”
“Our community members are the heart of the organization,” Helwig says. “We’re here to engage and benefit the community. We’re always looking for people to partner [with]. I can’t stress enough how all folks are welcome.”
TO THE POINT:
Sister Cities of Newport News
Address: 11820 Merchants Walk, Ste. 100, Newport News, VA 23606
Sister Cities Yorktown
Address: P.O. Box 375, Yorktown, VA 23692