The Hot Springs Sister City Program offers students a unique opportunity to experience cultural diversity and appreciation through the Sister City Educational Exchange.
By Jillian McGehee | Photography by Jeff Fuller-Freeman | Hair by Guy Burks with Ah Shék Salon | Makeup by Adrianne Brooks with Whiplash Beauty | Wardrobe from Accessory Gallery
For nearly a quarter of a century, the Sister City Program between Hanamaki, Japan, and Hot Springs has provided a greater understanding and appreciation between the two similar cities: both enjoy a strong tourism industry, thermal baths sourced from hot springs and beautiful landscapes. With continued success, Mary Neilson is pleased to welcome Japanese rock band Shonen Knife and celebrate the cultural diversity that makes the Sister City Program so unique.
Mary serves as cultural affairs manager of Visit Hot Springs, coordinating events such as the upcoming Arts & The Park, and is the executive director of the Sister City Program. The program is in partnership with Hanamaki and offers Hot Springs students unprecedented opportunities to visit Japan and host Japanese students in their homes.
Mary is still astounded by her own professional journey. “I grew up on a farm in Johnson County, Arkansas. I would rake hay and was a member of the 4-H Club. Now I work with artists and arts organizations and host groups from the other side of the world,” Mary says. “Hot Springs is a unique town. It contains all the great aspects of living in a small town surrounded by natural beauty, and is one that embraces arts and culture. I am very fortunate to be a part of it all.”
She adds, “When I was a kid growing up as the sixth of six kids on the farm, I would have never thought I would have traveled to Japan eight times and be planning a concert by a Japanese rock band.”
The Spa City will host Japanese rock group Shonen Knife during their North American tour as a fundraiser benefiting the Sister City Program’s Student Scholarship Fund on May 12 at Low Key Arts. Proceeds support the Sister City Educational Exchange and Garland County students traveling to Hanamaki.
A friend introduced Mary to the Sister City Program and the rest is history. She had never been to Japan and knew very little about the country, but Mary recognized the importance of learning and respecting other cultures – especially for young adults. She coordinates logistics and itineraries for visiting delegations from Hanamaki and promotes all Sister City Program events in Hot Springs. She also works with the Hot Springs National Park Sister City Foundation to generate revenue for the student scholarship fund.
Over the past eight years the program has experienced significant successes, Mary says. In 2012, the local program was recognized as the best Sister City Program in the nation by Sister Cities International. “Our program is an excellent example of the potential of the Sister Cities programs,” Mary says. “The Japanese language courses taught by Japanese instructors at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts and Lakeside High School grew out of the Sister City Program.”
She adds, “When our local students become involved, they see that despite all of our differences, language and religion, we really have so much in common. We all want a peaceful world and bright future for children.”
Arts & The Park | April 28 – May 7
Mary serves in a similar capacity working with local artists and the arts community, particularly with the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance that is responsible for Arts & The Park.
The 3rd annual Arts & The Park features 60 events planned over a 10-day period – showcasing local and statewide artists at venues throughout the Spa City. These events invite art enthusiasts to enjoy the beauty of Hot Springs and experience the unique collaboration of the city’s most talented individuals and organizations.