Ahwatukee Foothills resident Paula West, who became one of a handful of people at the top of the Sister Cities International organization last month, was a housewife who had never been outside of the U.S. when she resolved to volunteer for the group back in 1983.
Since then, she's visited 23 countries in the name of developing economic, cultural and humanitarian ties between cities in the U.S. and others around the world. In July, West was named to Sister Cities International's executive committee, which develops the strategic plans, finances, bylaws and governance for the entire organization.
"I completely love it. It fits my philosophy of life and my personality," West said.
Her involvement began when her daughter, who was then a student at McClintock High School in Tempe, discovered the Sister Cities' Youth Ambassador Program.
"My daughter came home one day and said they have this wonderful exchange program," West said. "It's such an unbelievable experience. It was actually life changing for my daughter."
Her daughter ended up spending six weeks in Regensburg, Germany, and her son soon followed. The experience also inspired West, who offered her time to the Tempe Sister Cities chapter.
"I started volunteering on a local level," she said.
Over time, West was invited to participate in Phoenix's Sister City program, and she later became one of the founders and the coordinator of the statewide umbrella group charged with coordinating the efforts of individual Arizona cities.
"They weren't organized or working together," she said.
Phoenix has 10 sister cities: Calgary, Canada; Catania, Italy; Chengdu, China; Ennis, Ireland; Grenoble, France; Hermosillo, Mexico; Himeji, Japan; Prague, Czech Republic; Ramat-Gan, Israel and Taipei, Taiwan.
"We have a set of criteria we follow," West said of the selection process. "We want to make sure there is economic viability to the relationship. It's what you have in common and what you have to offer."
She said her experience with the nonprofit has taught her such things as how to manage an organization, how to handle a budget and how to coordinate events. Next month, she plans to attend the 20th anniversary of the sister city agreement between Phoenix and Grenoble.
"We don't use any tax dollars for our travel," West said.
Fundraising has been a big part of the group's efforts. After a massive earthquake devastated Chengdu in 2008, Phoenix Sister Cities raised relief funds. West said she traveled to the city for a groundbreaking ceremony for a kindergarten paid for through donations. It had been named the Phoenix Kindergarten School.