North Thurston High School Musicians Build Global Friendships During Spring Performances in Mińsk Mazowiecki, Lacey’s Sister City in Poland


The April weather was cold, but the welcome was warm when 15 North Thurston High School (NTHS) band students arrived in Poland to perform in Mińsk Mazowiecki, a 600-year-old community that is also a Lacey sister city.

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“The relationships. That’s what keeps us going back,” says NTHS Band Director Darren Johnson, in recalling a similar band trip to Poland over a decade ago. “We still have families who had host families where the friendship is still going strong after 14 years.”

“These kids came back different people,” he adds. “It’s great to see things in the world in a different way. They see themselves differently. They are citizens of the world.”

Mińsk Mazowiecki Families Host North Thurston Students and Chaperones

Mińsk Mazowiecki is located near the Polish capital of Warsaw and is to be distinguished from the Belarusian capital of Minsk. The Lacey students’ memorable trip was arranged through the cooperative efforts of many, including Johnson, the North Thurston High School Band Parent Association and the office of Mińsk Mazowiecki Mayor Marcin Jakubowski.

North Thurston High School students standing on either side of a large wood sign outside that says, 'Minsk' and another word partially obscured.
Fifteen North Thurston High School band students traveled with their chaperones to Mińsk Mazowiecki in April as part of a cultural and goodwill exchange. Photo courtesy: Cindy Johnson

The students and chaperones stayed with host families. Oboe player and senior Natalie Hagerman, says at first the language barriers were challenging, but everyone soon adjusted. “After playing LEGOS with the little boy and card games with his sister who knew no more than four or five English words, we were able to laugh and play as if we understood each other perfectly,” she says. “I learned the value of making and sharing meals and felt truly taken care of by those who I knew were so grateful to share this opportunity. I know I formed so many connections in those 10 days that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Alto saxophone player and senior Victoria England had a similar experience. “Staying with my host family in Poland was one of the most influential experiences of the entire trip,” England says. “I witnessed my host family open their home to me, a complete stranger, with so much love, compassion and generosity. From the moment they met me, they treated me like I was one of their own.”

students setting at a table working on crafts with two older women bending down helping
North Thurston High School band students learning to make traditional Polish crafts. Photo courtesy: Cindy Johnson

Lacey Students Learn Polish Educational Customs and Perform a Joint Concert

One of the chaperones was Darren’s spouse Cindy Johnson, a teacher at Hansen Elementary School in Olympia. She says the NTHS students spent the first day in Poland interacting with local high schoolers. “They sat in table groups, answering questions like, how are things the same or different in your city?” says Cindy.

“I found so many aspects of the lives of the high schoolers so surprising,” says Hagerman. “How intentional their education system is, and yet how they still keep sports, music, and arts as independent activities not done through their school. The way age and maturity are perceived vastly different from ours with such subtle changes, like getting your license at 18 and often having three or five years of high school rather than just four.”

North Thurston High School Band Director Darren Johnson and trip chaperone Cindy Johnson stand before the street sign marking Aleja Lacey (Lacey Avenue) in Mińsk Mazowiecki, Poland. The community is a sister city to Lacey. Photo courtesy: Cindy Johnson

“But, above all else, how many things we had in common, even though we were raised in such different cultures, we all still took an interest in some of the same things and were scared by many of the same challenges,” Hagerman adds.

As part of the cultural and goodwill exchange, the NTHS students performed two concerts with music themed around friendship and peace, and one was a joint performance with the city band. The mayor also hosted the Lacey group at a lunch featuring local foods, and they learned how to make traditional crafts.

North Thurston High School band students in a ornate building seated with their instruments
North Thurston High School band students from Lacey performed two concerts in Poland during their spring trip. Photo courtesy: Cindy Johnson

Lacey High School Musicians’ Visit Broadens Their Understanding of History – And Life

The students also visited historical sites such as the Kraków Old Town historic district, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the Warsaw Rising Museum and the Copernicus Science Centre. These stops, including the somber ones, left a deep impression.

Mariusz Stusiński and Jowita Stusińska (left) hosted Darren and Cindy Johnson (right) during the student band trip to Poland. North Thurston High School students and their chaperones stayed with local families. Photo courtesy: Cindy Johnson

“To stand in the city of Krakow and a place like Auschwitz and realize the gravity of what had happened underneath where our feet were walking was surreal and meaningful,” says Hagerman. “Even seeing the way the stairs caved in under the weight of the millions of people who walked through the halls of Auschwitz-Birkenau left me completely speechless.”

England agrees. “Nothing comes close to the awestruck feeling of physically being in a place you have only known about through pictures,” she says. “I will never forget the moment I walked past the entrance to Kraków and abruptly stopped, taking in the architectural beauty that was right in front of me. I was in awe. No pictures or words would even come close to capturing that moment. Life is full of seemingly small moments in time that in the end have the most significant impact on your life. This was one of those moments.”

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