Thu, Jan. 23

Hands Across the Border creates friends
Exchange program in 13th year at middle school

While government builds walls between the United States and Mexico, middle school students in Cottonwood are building friendships.

Wednesday evening, 27 seventh and eighth graders from Coborca, Mexico, arrived at Cottonwood Middle School accompanied by six adults. In April, about the same number of students and adults from CMS will travel to Coborca.

Rhonda Gonzalez, the exchange program coordinator for CMS, said Hands Across the Border has been in Arizona for 20 years and at the middle school for 13. Her husband, Roman, is co-coordinator.

The CMS students are each paired with a student from Coborca. The partners stay at each other's home while on the exchange, which last for three days. The Mexican students will attend some classes at CMS, go bowling, play games at Riverfront Park and plant flowers on the school grounds. Wednesday evening the partners met for games and a potluck dinner in the school cafeteria.

"The biggest event is we go to Flagstaff and play in the snow," Gonzalez said. She said if there is no snow the group will go ice-skating.

On Saturday morning, before the Coborca students leave for home, the partners will gather at the school to sign T-shirts.

"When we go down there they take us to the beach," Gonzalez said. Usually, a visit to some factory will be included.

Several people who have made the trip to Coborca said the Mexican families treated them like royalty, with a virtual feast of great food.

"They were always trying to feed me," said Sarah Adler, who made the trip as a seventh grader. She is now a sophomore at Mingus Union. She said communication was difficult early on during her visit to Coborca. But the language barrier didn't stop her from learning about her partner's culture. "There are so many similarities," she said. "But there are differences, too."

Jaymee Sloan, a Navajo eighth-grader at CMS, will be going for the second time. She said it isn't just important for her to learn about her partner's culture but also to teach her partner about hers. "Where my family comes from, so she can tell her family," Jaymee said.

She said that before her first trip she simply wanted to see Mexico. "But now I want to know about her (partner's) family and where they live."

Jaymee said she thinks the Mexican students are more serious about education than many U.S. students. "Over there, they want to go to school," she said.

Things have changed with the Hands Across the Border program since 9-11, Gonzalez said. Now the Mexican students must have passports for the short-term visit. So do their parents, even if those parents are not accompanying their child. "And that gets expensive," she said.

Oak Creek School in Cornville had to cancel its exchange program because of that change, according to Gonzalez.

But the current border tensions do not have a significant impact on the program. Gonzalez said it might make it tougher to get people involved. "Some parents are afraid to send their kids," she said.

But that is part of the beauty of how the program helps break down myths and stereotypes.

"It's the friendship," Gonzalez said. "I take some kids down that I didn't know had prejudices, and they didn't either," she said. "The prejudices go away."

She said during the exchange the CMS students learn about each other as well as about their partners. "Some don't even know each other before going. They become a group."

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