WALNUT CREEK -- In late September, City Councilman Bob Simmons traveled 6,000 miles to the small town of Noceto in Northern Italy to attend a city council meeting.
Most people visit the community of approximately 10,000 residents in the Emilla Romagna Region near the city of Parma to savor the Parmesan cheese or gaze in awe at a nearby 15th-century castle, but Simmons, in an interview one week after the trip, said the meeting was a highlight.
"One of the interpreters' father was the mayor when the first (Sister Cities) delegation came to Walnut Creek, years ago," he said. "She was so excited at our being there and showed us front page newspaper photos of our arrival."
Sister Cities International began in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower had an insight -- that peace and prosperity arise from cultural and humanitarian exchanges. Walnut Creek joined the international program in 1986 after the city council approved $5,000 to fund a committee also supported by two sponsoring Walnut Creek Women's Clubs. The city hosted the first delegation from Noceto (which translated, means "walnut grove") in 1988. A number of exchanges -- in both directions -- have occurred since. A second city, Siófok, Hungary, was officially added as a sister city in 1993.
Simmons was accompanied on the recent trip by Walnut Creek Sister Cities President Karen Cassano and a delegation including a former mayor, the retired and the current city managers, the current city treasurer and assorted WCSCI leaders. The travelers paid their own fare.
In an interview prior to takeoff, Cassano said, "Everyone is going because they want to."
Although many cities build their programs atop economic components, Cassano said the cities' relationship is "strictly a social and cultural exchange." Strengthening ties and increasing appreciation of other cultures benefits the community, she insisted.
Simmons, asked how Walnut Creek residents gain from the friendship, admitted, participation is key.
"At some level, a person has to be engaged to benefit," he said, emphasizing that people don't have to travel to be involved. "If, when they come here, you know about it, you can interact. Last year, people came from Siófok and we took them to communities."
In Noceto, Simmons saw a problem impacting the people he described as "warm, friendly, exuberant for life and for music." Boarded-up buildings in the city's center were the result of "young persons' drain" -- a mass movement away from the small town by the younger generation.
"In Walnut Creek, we've approved 1,500 new housing units close to our downtown," Simmons said. "We're creating a downtown that will give our young people a place to stay. We have people who want to invest in our city. They don't have that."
But they do have an urban agriculture he admired. "There is a local cheese factory, just two miles out from the city center. They truck the whey to a local pig farm and feed it to the pigs. I respect how they take the local environment and create a closed circle where everything is used."
Joan Anderson, a Walnut Creek resident active in WCSC since 1992 and currently its vice president, was equally impressed.
"The gifts are intangible, but there is a feeling of friendship that we would not have in any other way except through a visit. There is so much strife in the world: this small trip made a huge impression of how much we are all alike."
Simmons, Cassano and Anderson all said the most noteworthy change to the 27-year old initiative is the addition of the Youth Ambassador Exchange program. In it's second year, the home-stay exchange brought eight Walnut Creek intermediate school students to Siofok before they joined the adult delegation in Noceto.
"The kids will remember this for the rest of their lives," Simmons said. "They develop friendships. When you're angry at a friend, you respond differently than if you don't know them at all. This enhances the potential for peaceful resolutions of naturally arising disputes."
Anderson agreed, recalling past visits when Walnut Creek hosted choral and soccer youth groups, welcomed Italian and Hungarian guests and engaged in exchanges aimed at teaching acceptance and respect for diversity.
Simmons said the youth ambassadors were expected to attend an October city council meeting to report on their trip. Although any cheese served at the meeting will likely by less tasty, he predicted the seeds planted by their experience would prove fruitful for years to come.