The first Sister City Youth Sports exchange took place this summer in Akita Japan with a delegation of six Kenai Central High School volleyball team members participating. The exchange team included Coach Pako Whannell, Kim Killion, Kyla Whannell, Kiana Harding, Abby Beck, Cassi Homes, Alli Steinbeck and Jacey Ross. The trip was organized by Sister City facilitator Yasuko Lehtinen. Lehtinen has taught Japanese language in the Central Peninsula for more than two decades and was the inspiration for establishing a sister city with Akita, Japan back when Don Gilman was Borough Mayor. “Everyone was a little nervous when we first arrived, it was the first time we have taken young people to Akita, but by the time we left no one wanted to come home and we had made lifelong friends and the girls are committed to having more young people become involved in our sister city program,” Lehtinen told the Dispatch.
The team was welcomed with high honors by Akita City Mayor Motomu Hozumi and presented with a set of 50th Anniversary commemorate coins from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, School District and Kenai Peninsula College. “The Mayor was honored to receive such a nice gift and is looking forward to coming here in 2017,” said Lehtinen. Lehtinen was accompanied by her daughter Pako Whannell, who accompanied the team as coach and her granddaughter Kyla Whannell who was a member of the volleyball team. Whannell also gave a demonstration of Alaska exercise classes such as are common in the U.S.A. “The focus of the exchange was for the youth volley ball team, but I was able to teach a fitness class while there which proved to be very successful with about fifty participants in the class ranging in age from 5 to 70 and it proved to be quite an experience,” said Whannell. After returning Kyla said she struggled with the language but was motivated now to study more with her grandmother, “We played with the Akita high school volleyball team and integrated with them into teams and it was great playing with different levels of the other teams,” said Kyla.
Kiana Harding was the spiker for the team, “Communication was difficult at first when we started playing together but we used basic words like higher and lower for setting. They were all so respectful and treated us like champions, it was an amazing experience. They practice 6 hours a day 6 days a week, they are on summer break now and they were in the gym every day,” she said. Setter Kiana Harding said, “At first it was a bit intimidating and we struggled until we got a few basic words down so we could communicate as a team but then everything smoothly and it was a blast.” “I really wanted to learn about the culture and it was an amazing opportunity, I’d love to go back,” said Cassie Holmes. “The best part was getting to know the girls, they were so happy to get acquainted with us and they totally loved having and hosting us over there, we had so much in common especially when it comes to sports,” added Jacey Ross. For more information on future youth sport exchanges contact Yasuko Lehtinen at the KPBSD.