Chester’s English ‘twins’ stop by for a visit

When a delegation of local officials and citizen volunteers from Gravesham, England, dropped by the Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation and Chester Community Association offices last Friday, it was merely the latest installment of the legacy dating from the 1614 marriage of early colonist John Rolfe to a local girl named Pocahontas.  

The visitors had come to see Chester’s Village Green and study plans for the future Chesterfield Cultural Arts Center, to be built adjacent to the Chester Library when fund-raising efforts have reached their goal.  Their visit was part of a fast-paced six-day mission in which Gravesham delegates investigated Chesterfield County’s efforts to build community in what has become a typical American “bedroom” county.

Jim Daniels welcomed the Gravesham delegation, explaining his original vision for the Village Green as a vital center, affording space for such activities as the Farmers’ Market and ChesterFest.

Building on Daniels’ theme, Mark Fausz, one of the founders of the Chester Community Association, pointed to bare patches on the Green as evidence of its constant use. Explaining the problems of decentralization in a suburban county, Fausz emphasized the importance of “creating a sense of place” at “the center of Chester.”

Betty Mathews, another CCA founder and, for years, the driving force behind the cultural arts center, then ushered the group indoors to view the model of the proposed facility, along with artists’ renderings of how it will look in use.  As planned, she explained, the cultural arts center will share a common entrance with the present library.  In addition to galleries for displaying the work of local artists, the center will have a modern theatre and a separate multi-purpose room adaptable to many sorts of performance.   

The Gravesham delegation was then whisked off to the next appointment in its whirlwind tour of Chesterfield – culminating in a visit to last weekend’s “Publick Days” at Henricus.  The delegation’s visit was the third since Gravesham and Chesterfield entered into a “twinning” arrangement in 2005.

“Twinning” is a long-standing focus in the Borough of Gravesham.  The Borough maintains similar relationships with Neumunster, Germany, and Cambrai, France, and is working to develop a “twinning” relationship with a district in India.

According to the British delegates, there is a great deal to be learned from visiting communities which face similar challenges.  “Twinning” works at two levels – government to government and citizen to citizen.  In the case of Chesterfield, a third component has been added – student to student.  Government delegates typically stay in hotels and meet with their opposite numbers in the host locality.  “Volunteer” delegates, including high school students, stay as guests in the homes of host-community volunteers, learning about the daily life of their “twins.”

Having visited Chesterfield three times since the relationship was established eight years ago, the Gravesham delegates are eager for Chesterfield residents to develop a corresponding volunteer association to sponsor return visits to England.  The Chesterfield Association, when organized, would operate on a continuing basis to maintain the “twinning” relationship.  

Gravesham, with its 25 years of experience and 130 citizen volunteers, has offered all assistance to Chesterfield residents interested in forming an association.  Locally, the fledgling association will initially fall under the under the leadership of the CCA, but the goal is for it to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

But it all goes back to Pocahontas, the local girl who married an Englishman, sailed off to visit his country, and died just as she set sail for home.  She was buried near the mouth of the Thames, in Gravesend, the municipal center of Gravesham – forging a link which promises to bear new fruit four centuries later.

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