Oak Harbor has picked a new sister city from the Philippines.
Except, it’s not exactly a city.
Santa Rita was selected after attempts to form such a relationship with original choice, Libungan, never gained traction, said Bob Wall, chairman of a committee that was formed to bring a sister city to Oak Harbor.
Santa Rita is the largest of 17 barangays inside Olongapo City in the province of Zambales. “Barangay” is the native Filipino term for a village or district.
However, Santa Rita’s smaller size and connections to Oak Harbor made it a good fit as a sister city, Wall said.
The committee voted to approve Santa Rita, and the City of Oak Harbor is behind the effort.
“We’re excited,” Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley said. “I think we can do a lot. Not only can we do some cultural exchange and educate those not aware of Santa Rita, they have some needs we can also fulfill from a humanitarian standpoint.
“I look forward to eventually traveling there and finding out more and see what we can do to start that relationship.”
Like Libungan, Santa Rita was picked in recognition of Oak Harbor’s large Filipino community and ties to the Philippine islands.
At least two of the committee members are from the Philippines, with one having lived near Santa Rita.
The village, located on the island of Luzon, also carries military connections as Olongapo City was the longtime site of a U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay.
“I got married there. That’s where I met my husband,” said Geline Cardwell, a sister city committee member and Oak Harbor resident who’s from San Marceliono, a city that is less than a half-hour drive from Santa Rita.
Cardwell, a member of the Rotary Club of Oak Harbor, got involved with the committee after being invited to a meeting. When attempts to reach contacts in Libungan were unsuccessful, she suggested Santa Rita as a choice for Oak Harbor’s sister city.
Cardwell has connections to Santa Rita and sees similarities to Oak Harbor, particularly with the former military base in the vicinity. After it was closed in 1992, U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay was converted to a tax and duty-free shopping zone known as Subic Bay Freeport Zone.
“Geline is going to be our point person on the structure of the sister city,” Wall said. “Usually, you have one person who is the point person for that city.”
Wall also is hopeful that Oak Harbor will at some point be able to offer humanitarian support to Santa Rita, which has been hit hard by typhoons in recent years.
The area is no stranger to catastrophic events as Mount Pinatubo, just 20 miles away from Subic Bay, erupted in 1991, killing 847 people.
That was the same year Cardwell came to the United States.
“It was good timing when I left,” she said.
Even though it is considered a district within a city, Santa Rita’s population is about 40,000 — nearly double that of Oak Harbor (22,000).
Olongapo City has a population of about 221,000 and already is affiliated with five sister cities, including Bremerton.
“I don’t know how the barangay business is all structured,” Wall said. “I don’t know if it’s a big deal.”
Wall said the Santa Rita district made sense due to its more-similar size and connections to Oak Harbor, including its ties and proximity to significant U.S. military history.
Santa Rita also is near the province of Bataan, site of the Bataan Death March of World War II.
Wall said the committee obtained its goals of landing a sister city that was English speaking, had local clubs to network with and was relatively close in size.
“When this city came about, it seemed to have some natural connections,” Wall said.