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Washougal rolls out the red carpet for first ‘Sister City’ visitor

Roma Toft, of Zielonki, Poland, tours east Clark County, falls in love with area’s open spaces

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While walking down the Washougal Waterfront Trail on an uncharacteristically warm and dry spring day last week, Roma Toft was asked what she liked best about east Clark County. She responded with a flick of her hand southeast, toward the Columbia River and Mount Hood.

“(I love) the (open) space and the nature,” said Toft, a resident of Zielonki, a small commune in northern Poland. “I’m really envious of that because in Europe, no matter if it’s Poland, Ukraine or (anywhere in) Western Europe, we like space. When I first came to America — and this impression will stay with me forever — (I fell in love with) the open space. Everything is just big and wide open. This is really nice.”

Last week, Toft became the first Zielonki resident to visit Washougal since the two cities reached an agreement to form a sister-city partnership earlier this year.

Washougal leaders took Toft, a Zielonki council member, on a tour of their city on Wednesday, April 19, showing her Washougal City Hall, the Washougal School District, 54-40 Brewing Company, the Port of Camas-Washougal, Steamboat Landing and the Pendleton Woolen Mill.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Everything is just perfect, a perfect mixture of everything — information, friendships, weather, the beauty of it all. It’s really nice. I love America — my husband is American — so for my first visit here, I knew that I would really like it. I live in Poland, but I have really special feelings for America, so whenever I come here, I always have a good experience and I always meet wonderful people.”

A sister-city relationship is a form of legal or social agreement between two geographically and politically distinct localities for the purpose of promoting cultural and commercial ties. The city of Camas has enjoyed sister-city arrangements with three cities in Poland — Krapkowice, Morawica and Zabierzow — for many years.

“Washougal officials have participated as hosts and supporters for previous visits of the Polish sister city delegations to Camas,” according to a city staff report. “This inspiration and experience led the city council to seek a sister city partnership with a Polish municipality.”

With the assistance of former Camas City Administrator Lloyd Halverson, who lived in Poland for several years in the 1990s, Washougal officials reached out to their counterparts in Zielonki, a municipality located in Krakow County, Ma?opolska Voivodeship, in late 2022.

Zielonki has a population of approximately 23,700 and borders the regional capital of Kraków.

“(Zielonki) is not a city, actually. We have a different system,” Toft said. “In America, every place is a city, a town or a township, but Poland has a different administration system. We are divided into regions and counties and municipalities, and every municipality is divided into smaller villages. My municipality, Zielonki, is divided into 19 villages, with Zielonki as its capital and largest village, so it’s a little bit different.

“I know (Washougal) is not (exactly) like home, and some solutions cannot be transferred into Poland, because we have different systems,” she continued. “But everything we learn here (is valuable) — we can just think about new ideas, so it’s very important.”

Zielonki council members adopted a resolution establishing a partnership with the city of Washougal on Thursday, Jan. 26, and chatted with Washougal officials via Zoom on Thursday, Feb. 9.

“During the meeting, a presentation about our commune was presented, and representatives from Washougal presented their city and its values,” according to a statement on Zielonki’s website. “At the end of the meeting, Lloyd Halverson confirmed that Washougal and Zielonki fit together and there are many common elements, opportunities and challenges that we can achieve together.”

Washougal council members adopted a resolution of their own on Monday, Feb. 27.

“Zielonki has similarities to Washougal, including size, location proximal to a larger metropolitan area, and the needs and challenges facing the community,” the resolution states. “Such a partnership will bring benefits not only for the two local government institutions, but also at the social level in the form of establishing valuable interpersonal relationships.”

Toft said that her visit to Washougal is “just the beginning” of the partnership between the two cities.

“This is like a mini-first step,” she said. “It was Lloyd Halverson’s idea — he was our ‘matchmaker’ — and I got enthusiastic about it right away. I managed to make many people enthusiastic about this. Our city council is composed of 21 people, and all of them voted ‘yes’ for the partnership. I think every (subsequent) visit will be a benefit to everybody. Many of the people that I talk to in our municipality are really enthusiastic about it, especially people who have been to the States. And I’m pretty sure that people who have never been here will get enthusiastic about it.”

Washougal Mayor David Stuebe, Washougal City Councilmember David Fritz and Washougal City Manager David Scott will travel to Zielonki in June.

“(I’m looking forward to) seeing their country, exploring on my own and being an ambassador,” Stuebe said. “I got really excited about (this partnership) because I’ve traveled around (the world) — I grew up a military brat, so I appreciate the international flavor and what it brings to people. People are like, ‘Don’t you like America?’ It’s not that (I don’t). We have to understand that we’re all the same. I think this is a chance just to learn from each other.”

Toft, who plans to return to Washougal in September along with several other Zielonki representatives, agrees.

“(Going abroad brings people) a different perspective,” she said. “And it’s new, so you can learn a lot, and after all, what’s most important? The people.”