Tukee Talk Diana Martinez

Part of a cultural exchange program that at one point included about 65 schools, Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Ahwatukee Foothills is one of the few remaining host schools in the state.

Friends Across the Border, derived from Hands Across the Border, is a small group of seventh- and eighth-graders at Akimel who partner with a sister school in Mexico.

The students will be hosting about 10 students from a secondary school in Esperanza, a town in Sonora, Mexico, this week to celebrate 20 years of the program.

“The students get such a feeling of acceptance,” said Lori Vanover, co-coordinator at Akimel. “It’s special for them to be in a family situation where they are welcome.”

Students from Mexico will be staying March 6-10 and will be spending time with Ahwatukee students. Their schedule includes visiting the Musical Instrument Museum, Amazing Jake’s, taking a tour of Desert Vista High School, and a 20th anniversary picnic with former families and students of Hands Across the Border.

“Major things that our kids learn is that though they may speak different languages, they are so much alike with the same wants and needs,” Vanover said.

Completely self-sufficient, Friends Across the Border at Akimel is supported through participation fees. Vanover said more than 1,300 students and 1,500 adults have participated in its 20-year run.

One thing she said is a common response from the program is awareness.

“To me, it’s like taking blinders off,” Vanover said.

On both sides, students and adults in the program have had their eyes opened to realizing that people aren’t that different, and stereotypes can be broken. Past students of the program have also pursued international professions like volunteering in the Peace Corps.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Vanover said the option of students travelling to Mexico to visit their sister school has been cut short since safety became a huge concern for the district.

Remembering the dirt streets and humble community of Esperanza, Vanover said that the students travelling from Mexico also get to see their opportunities for education here, as resources are low in their own school.

“We continue to do what we can to build bridges, not walls, and friendships that span the border,” she said.

For more information, email Vanover at lvanover@kyrene.org.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or dmartinez@ahwatukee.com. Follow her on Twitter @dmartinezAFN.

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