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Sister City program still alive

Austria delegation plans April visit

After 19 years, Altoona’s Sister City program hasn’t flagged, according to a program advocate who spoke to City Council recently.

The Sister City Committee, which runs the cultural exchange program between Altoona and St. Polten, Austria, will welcome a delegation from across the Atlantic on April 6 for a nine-day visit, committee member Debra Flaig told council.

The 27 Austrian students from a pair of high schools and a business school there will stay with host families here, while the three adults will stay at the Wingate hotel downtown, Flaig said.

The program provides an opportunity for local families to learn about Austrian life, educational practices and family traditions, Flaig said.

The committee is currently “OK” with host families but is looking for more, Flaig said.

The committee is searching for “fun activities” for the visitors, in addition to the downtown walking tour, Penn State Altoona campus visit and Curve game that are already planned, she said.

The visiting students will attend classes at Altoona Area and Bellwood-Antis high schools and Altoona Area Junior High School, Flaig said.

The lead adult, Marcus, a Steelers fan, hopes to visit Pittsburgh.

He was an exchange student here a dozen years ago, so his shepherding of a group now represents the program coming “full circle,” Flaig said.

Flaig became involved in 2005 when her daughter volunteered their family to become a host.

Flaig hesitated but ended up billeting about 11 kids from Austria.

The family still maintains contact with them via phone and video chat.

A delegation from St. Polten was last here in April 2015, while an Altoona delegation last went to St. Polten in 2016.

St. Polten’s reception of Altoona visitors has been “fabulous,” Flaig said.

One Altoona native spent eight weeks there teaching English to preschool kids. She was provided housing and living expenses, and grew close enough to her host family to go on vacation with them, Flaig said.

“These are the types of things that can happen,” she told council.

The committee wants to decrease the intervals between reciprocal visits from the current four or five years, she said.

Donations to the program can be made to the Central Pennsylvania Foundation, with a check memo reading “sister city,” she said.

Businesses can provide “knick-knacky things,” and foods that symbolize Altoona, she said.

Any help from the city would be welcome — perhaps in the form of a grant, she told council.

Mayor Matt Pacifico and City Manager Marla Marcinko will meet with Flaig on Friday to see what the city can do to help, Pacifico said.

He would like the city to become involved, but doesn’t know what form that could take at this point, he said.

“Obviously, we don’t have the financial resources to do a lot,” he said. “But there are other ways.”

Councilman Dave Butterbaugh’s niece, now a college student, went to St. Polten about four years ago.

“She still has great memories,” Butterbaugh said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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