Four Brevard County residents selected to serve as camp leaders in Israel
By Tammy Roberts
Associate managing editor
BREVARD - In order to truly understand another's culture, one must first meet its people, explore its land and research its history.
This is the concept behind the Sister City Program of Cocoa.
While it is based in Cocoa, the program has ties throughout Brevard County and is an affiliate of Sister Cities International, which was created during President Dwight Eisenhower's 1956 White House conference on citizen diplomacy.
Its mission, according to www.sister-cities.org, is to "promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation - one individual, one community at a time."
A retired minister, Ron Shelton is the current director of the Sister City Program of Cocoa and was instrumental in bringing the concept to the Space Coast.
"For 30 years, I'd been taking groups to Israel through my church, but I recently had a desire to have more contact with the people, the culture and the life over in Israel," Mr. Shelton said. "Then, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if our city was involved?'"
Mr. Shelton performed a great deal of research on the concept of Sister Cities, and in October 2007, brought the idea to Cocoa Mayor Michael Blake, where it was well-received by he and members of the city council.
Mr. Shelton and his team researched locations in Israel to serve as Cocoa's Sister City and settled on Beit Shemesh, a city located approximately 19 miles west of Jerusalem, which has a population of about 90,000 residents.
While the modern community of Beit Shemesh was founded in the 1950s, the history of the city dates back to biblical times and is mentioned on several occasions in the Bible, Mr. Shelton explained.
"The city has grown in a short period of time, as many immigrants come to settle there from different parts of the world," he said. "It is also home to many young people."
During the past five years, many events and projects have taken place between the two cities, bringing the communities closer.
On the Brevard County end, the program has grown to include nine board of directors and more than 50 volunteer members throughout the Space Coast area.
When the program first started, members in Brevard hosted a large event in Cocoa Village to celebrate the newly established relationship. Local leaders from Brevard County attended the event, as well as the consulate general of Israel in Miami and the mayor of Beit Shemesh, in order to sign the Sister City agreement face-to-face.
Individuals from both Brevard and Beit Shemesh have visited one another's hometowns on several occasions in the past few years, while more than 40 Israeli residents and 125 from Brevard even went on a cruise together out of Port Canaveral.
"The heart of a Sister City Program lies in creating relationships," Mr. Shelton said. "As a result of these relationships, ideas are initiated, dreams are born, businesses are built, cultures are shared, people prosper and communities grow."
The Cocoa-based program has also hosted a variety of fundraising activities to assist those in need living in Beit Shemesh, such as golf tournaments, art and music shows and quilting projects.
The program's most recent endeavor in making a difference in the lives of those in need was to select four individuals from Brevard County to serve as leaders of an English-only day camp for 50 fifth- and sixth-grade students in Beit Shemesh during the month of July.
The four young adults chosen by the program's board of directors were:
. Hannah Rainer of Melbourne, a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida, majoring in education
. Courtney Roy of Palm Bay, who is in the process of completing a bachelor's degree in exceptional education from the University of Central Florida and who plans to earn a master's degree in Israel
. Rebeccah White of Cocoa, who completed home school education this year and will be attending college in the fall
. Molly Malone of Rockledge, who has served as a Brevard Public Schools teacher since 2006
Upon returning from their time in Beit Shemesh, the ladies have been asked to provide a brief presentation of their experiences for members of the Sister City Program.
"What a great learning experience for these young ladies at this point in their lives," Mr. Shelton said.
A 501 (c)(3) program, the Sister City program does not receive funding from the city, but its leaders touch base with the city manager of Cocoa, Dr. Brenda Fettrow, each month.
"The Sister City Program with the city of Cocoa has had a positive impact on the local community by trying to foster greater cultural knowledge and understanding," said Dr. Fettrow, in an email. "The opportunity to learn more about others and their culture helps us all grow as citizens."
For more information about the Sister City Program of Cocoa, visit www.sistercityprogram.org or email Mr. Shelton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is a Sister City Program?
. A Sister City Program is a volunteer group of ordinary citizens, who, with the support of their local elected officials, form long-term relationships with people and organizations in a city abroad
. Each Sister City Program is independent and pursues the activities and thematic areas that are important to their community
. A city can have one or a multitude of Sister Cities, ranging from a few members to hundreds of volunteers
. Sister City Programs promote peace through people-to-people relationships, with program offerings varying from basic cultural exchanges to shared research and development projects
- Source: www.sister-cities.org