Palo Alto and its sister city Oaxaca have reached their 50-year milestone this summer, and officials with the two cities renewed their commitment in June. A 30-person Palo Alto delegation that included city officials and volunteers from the Neighbors Abroad cultural-exchange program traveled to Mexico June 8 to 19 to celebrate the five-decade collaboration.
Oaxaca, Mexico, became the second of Palo Alto's six "sisters" around the world in 1964. At the time, Oaxaca had a few similarities with Palo Alto. Both were university towns with a similar climate, Marion Mandell, Neighbors Abroad's vice president for Oaxaca, said. But the similarities seemed to end there. Disparities in health care and education abounded. Thirty-six percent of children died in the first year of life, and children were often imprisoned with their incarcerated parents because there was no foster care, Mandell said.
Neighbors Abroad built a children's library, a planetarium and an orphanage, the Albergue Infantil Josefino, which cares for 55 orphaned, abandoned and abused children. The group also funded a health care initiative that has helped rural villages to grow nutritious food and learn basic medical care.
The City of Palo Alto, Palo Alto Fire Department, Neighbors Abroad and Palo Alto chapters of the Rotary Club and Kiwanis have provided Oaxaca with badly needed emergency equipment that has saved lives and extinguished fires.
California law restricts the number of years a city can use emergency equipment, after which it becomes obsolete. But the good-condition equipment still has many years of usefulness hence the donations to Oaxaca, Mandell said.
In 2001, a newly trained Oaxacan team used Palo Alto equipment to put out an arson fire at the Benito Juarez Universidad law school library.
Today Oaxaca has a fleet of 26 fire vehicles, eight of which were donated by Palo Alto. Some of those vehicles are named for Palo Alto fire personnel, including Fire Captain Joe Carlton, Jorge Salazar, volunteer driver Bob Wenzlau and former Fire Chief Nick Marinaro. An ambulance is named for Mandel, Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd said.
Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, City Manager James Keene and Councilman Greg Scharff attended the celebrations, delivering clothing and supplies to the orphanage, she said. City officials traveled at their own expense.
"This trip meant a lot to me," Shepherd said in an email. "I was very impressed by the work of both committees in Neighbors Abroad and in Oaxaca."
Shepherd and Mandell prepared a certificate renewing the sister-city relationship, which Shepherd and Oaxaca's mayor signed during a formal event with Oaxaca's 17 council members, she said.
A new plaque was also dedicated in a park where a coast redwood Oaxaca's equivalent to El Palo Alto was planted 49 years ago.
In remote rural villages, the Palo Alto delegation saw the benefits of the Nino-a-Nino (child-to-child) program Neighbors Abroad funds. The program teaches children to teach each other about basic health care, nutrition and environmental awareness, Mandell said. The knowledge trickles down through families whose traditions don't always cure disease and may make illnesses worse.
Diarrhea, one of the great killers of infants, was traditionally treated by many families by giving the child less water to dry the child out, but those children died from dehydration, Mandell said. With new knowledge of appropriate treatments brought into the homes, Nino-a-Nino has reduced child deaths from double digits to 1 to 2 percent, Mandell said.
Children now create family gardens in the remote villages, and they put on puppet shows to spread health messages, she added.
Shepherd called it a pleasure to witness the benefits of Palo Alto's contributions.
"Because of Neighbors Abroad, Oaxaca is a more secure city, and Palo Alto enriched," she said.
But the gift-giving has not been one-sided, Mandell and Shepherd said. Oaxaca has assisted Palo Alto multiple times through the years. In 1986, Oaxaca consulted on a Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo exhibit to recreate a local village. In 1994, it collaborated on the Oaxacan Myth and Magic exhibit at Palo Alto Art Center.
In 2009, 18 Oaxacan officials visited Palo Alto for nine days and met with students in the Escondido Elementary School's Spanish Immersion Program. Both cities regularly host a student-exchange program, Mandell said.
The goodwill built by Neighbors Abroad was born during the Cold War in 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower started the Town Affiliation Program to urge U.S. cities to develop ties with cities throughout the world. He believed that human-to-human exchanges between nations could help prevent global wars.
"It's the people. The whole idea of 'people to people' is one of the main, strong things that has come from this relationship. If you get to know people, you find out they are just like you are."