The City of Big Bear Lake forged international friendships back in 1984, under then-Mayor John Eminger, aligning with Rosarito Beach, Mexico as our official Friendship City and Abtenau, Austria as our Sister City. Though interactions with Rosarito Beach have been limited in recent years, our Sister City in Abtenau has participated in a summer student study exchange program, which dates back to 1989, when the Snow Summit Junior Race Team first visited Abtenau to participate in a friendly Sister City Olympics. Group coordinator Linda Reinik says that, in the past 20 years, 110 youth from the Big Bear Valley, generally ages 11-14, have participated in the exchange program, adding that these “little ambassadors” included 15 Big Bear Middle School students who spent three weeks in Austria this past July.
However, as the City has not been involved in these partnerships in recent years, the City Council on November 23 entered into a discussion to review whether it was prudent to continue paying the $250 annual dues to the Sister City program and, if so, would efforts better serve our community by partnering with a city that would potentially bolster the economy, or further the establishment of Big Bear Lake as an outdoor sports enthusiast mecca.
This consideration was met with concern with those involved in the Abtenau exchange, and as former Mayor Eminger, one of seven to speak on behalf of the program, said to Council, “I can’t believe we’d even think about dissolving this partnership. It’s a good project, it’s really international.” Parent and teacher Scott Waner, who’s had two daughters participate in the exchange, noted that the exposure to a variety of cultures is important not just for those who get to travel, but for those with whom they share their experiences back in Big Bear. To that end, he encouraged Council to “think globally, act locally.” Parent Michael Natzic cited the Lighthouse Project and their local efforts to foster a child-honoring community, saying that’s what the Abtenau program provides, adding, “This program’s become part of our heritage here in Big Bear.”
Current Mayor Rick Herrick responded, “It’s not the $250 that’s at issue. I’d like to see the program more inclusive.” Councilmember Liz Harris seconded that point, noting that during her time as mayor, she had not been invited to participate in the Abtenau relationship. “I would like the program to continue,” she said, “but I would like the relationship to be different. I would like there to be a relationship with the City of Big Bear Lake.”
Current participation in the Abtenau program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the spring, has not been advertised or open to all interested families. As Reinik tells KBHR, a selection committee asks for student recommendations from local teachers, coaches, clergymen and scout leaders, to match those students, in age, gender and interests, selected from Abtenau. She adds that it is also a family selection, since exchange buddies stay in each other’s homes on alternating summers. “Abtenau does the initial selection,” she says, “because they are smaller, then we match. Abtenau dictates the size of the group.”
The selection process, and all other aspects of the Sister and Friendship Cities programs, will be reviewed by an ad hoc City Council committee, which Mayor Herrick established in response to the November 23 discussion. He appointed himself, a coordinator for the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange, and Harris, a former educator and past participant in exchange programs off the mountain, to serve on this committee and, in the interim, agreed that program dues would be paid by Big Bear Lake. He noted that he would like to ensure an open application process for Big Bear Lake children to apply for the Abtenau exchange and, he said, “Make it clear that it’s not just a name on a sign, but that it means something to us.”
However, as family participant Theresa Reagan-Blood told Council, “It’s important in Big Bear. We are ‘America’ to Abtenau.”