Connecting cultures

Katie Hilbert

Kent has partnership with ‘sister city’ Dudince, Slovakia

The city of Kent has a pen pal.

With the help of e-mails, pictures, newsletters, cards, activities and a number of dedicated people, Kent keeps a regular correspondence with its pen pal, or “sister city,” Dudince, Slovakia.

Kent’s sister-city partnership is part of the larger organization Sister Cities International, an organization that makes it possible for communities to have international exchanges and programs in areas of the world where they have an interest, said Tim Honey, the executive director of Sister Cities International.

“There’s a real need to be internationally engaged, and sister cities is a wonderful way to do that,” he said.

Kent’s partnership with Dudince was jump-started in 2002 by Kent resident Rudy Bachna, who helped form the Kent-Dudince Sister Cities Association. Bachna also is known for starting the gymnastics program at Kent State with his late wife Janet.

The association has members in cities besides Kent, such as Cleveland, in other states and in Canada. The association meets monthly and partakes in a variety of activities to keep Dudince and Kent linked and learning about one another.

One of the association’s activities has been to form a correspondence between students at Stanton Middle School and a school in Dudince. The correspondence is known as Sisters OverSeas.

One of the highlights of the association’s activities, Bachna said, was when some of the members visited Dudince in 2003.

Students in the Kent Roosevelt Choir also had the opportunity to visit Dudince on a separate trip, where they performed a concert. The association helped the school raise money for the trip, Bachna said. As part of the concert, the choir sang two songs in Slovak.

The association also holds a banquet each year with Slovakian food and entertainment.

“We’ve been active,” Bachna said. “It sure keeps me busy.”

Although the association is not yet involved with the university, Bachna said it is a possibility for the future.

“It’s down the road,” he said.

Bachna invested interest in starting the association because of his Slovakian heritage, said Dan Smith, the executive director of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce. Smith said he is one of the charter members of the association, which means he attends the meetings and participates in the events. Other people in the community shared the same heritage as Bachna and also wanted to reach out, Smith said.

Bachna said he knew the residents of Dudince needed him.

“They needed me because of my enthusiasm and my knowledge of the history of Slovakia, my fluency in the language,” he said.

His enthusiasm, knowledge of history and pride in the program is apparent as he talks about the association. He gestures with his hands frequently and often shares tidbits of Slovakian history.

It’s not surprising that Bachna knows a great deal of history. He grew up immersed in the culture.

“We were culturally enriched with our culture,” Bachna said of his family. “There were a lot of people that tried to hide their heritage. Not us. (Our parents) taught us songs, and they taught us poems, and they taught us to dance and they taught us gymnastics,” he said.

Other members of the association did not grow up absorbing their Slovakian heritage like Bachna did. Kent resident Lexia Yankovich, the secretary of the association, grew up following her father’s customs, rather than her mother’s. Yankovich’s father was Serbian, and her mother was Slovakian. Yankovich says she is now becoming more aware of Slovakian history.

Finding a connection to the Slovakian culture is one of the reasons Margaret Garmon joined the association. Garmon, a Kent resident and doctoral student at Kent State, has been involved with the group for about two years.

“I feel a lot closer to my mother and my grandparents,” Garmon said of the benefits of her involvement.

As a member, she said she has been given the opportunity to hear the Slovak language being spoken and “just to know a little more about the culture and what the country was like.

“Even though we are very much American citizens, we still have that longing to know more about our background and our family’s background,” she said.

Not all members of the association have Slovakian backgrounds. Kent resident W. Roak Zeller, the treasurer of the association, does not.

“It’s my feeling that if the long-time residents and their families don’t support the civic organizations in Kent,” Zeller said. “Why should we expect anyone else to?”

Even though Zeller does not have a Slovakian background, his involvement has been a learning experience. He said he has learned about Slovakian history, something he did not know much about before joining.

“It’s not just so much that it’s a Slovak thing,” Garmon said, “but it’s a community thing.”

Contact public affairs reporter Katie Hilbert at [email protected].