OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — For the past 30 years, the city of Oak Ridge has enjoyed a special relationship with Naka-shi, Japan.
The coronavirus disrupted that connection but in one way made it stronger.
The two cities are on opposite sides of the globe.
But Oak Ridge and Naka-shi are sister cities.
Part of the relationship is an exchange trip every year for middle school students from Jefferson and from Robertsville, plus a couple of chaperones.
Back when they were in middle school, Tucker Smith and Alex Shanafield were selected for the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
John Smith is a teacher and also part of the Sister City Support Organization.
"We share homes. So when our students go to Japan they get to stay at the home of their brother or sister, we call them brothers and sisters, and get to experience what life is in the home in Japan," he said.
Tucker Smith said, "You can also make a lifelong friendship with whoever you get paired up with."
Not this year.
The coronavirus canceled the visit but not the friendship.
"In the spirit of friendship. We've received the wonderful gift of the masks from our from our sister city," John Smith said.
Students in Oak Ridge received handmade gifts from Naka-shi.
"It was a complete surprise. I knew nothing about this," Alex Shanafield said.
In Japan, the Naka International Exchange Association and other groups cooperated to make 2,000 cloth face masks to send to Oak Ridge.
It is a gesture of goodwill to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a thoughtful gift for friends far away.
"This is one I got to pick from. I think the max masks are pretty cool and interesting they have a lot of different designs you can choose from," Tucker said.
John pointed out, "Even the packaging that Naka sent it in their Japanese language when it translate his friendship."
The label reads virus cannot break our friendship.
Alex said, "It was really nice. Now that we have something I have plenty of stuff from my trip but now I have something I can work every day and think about them."
The Sister City Support Organization does plan to send a reciprocal gift but in the spirit of the Secret City it's a secret.