In the fall of 1998, the Kotlas Connection embarked on one of its most ambitious projects ever a student exchange on the theme of rivers. Rivers have been vital to the history and economy of both Greater Waterville and Kotlas, and both communities' being located on rivers is one of the main reasons for their pairing as sister cities in the first place.
That September, twelve Waterville area high school students began studying the Kennebec; while in Kotlas, twelve Kotlas teens examined their river, the Northern Dvina. The two groups of young ecologists then shared their findings during exchange visits during the winter and summer of 1999. The Russian students came to Waterville for a week at the end of February, and the American students went to Kotlas late June.
In Greater Waterville, the exchange was administered through the regional program for the gifted and talented. The participants were attending high schools in Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, and Oakland. Each was selected by his or her own school. The Kotlas students were chosen by their schools and the sister city committee in Kotlas.
The Waterville area students spent one or two full school days each month studying the history, ecology, and economy of the Kennebec. Their instructor was Mike Waters, a science teacher at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Historians, scientists, industrialists, politicians, and other volunteer experts also helped. Their curriculum also included material on Russian culture and life in Kotlas, as well as exposure to the Russian language. The Russian students, rather than meeting as a class, wrote individual research papers on topics pertaining to the Northern Dvina, its watershed, and environmental problems in the Kotlas area. They worked under the sponsorship of the House of Children's Creativity, the Kotlas equivalent of a Boys & Girls Club.
For its success, this project relied on the efforts of many volunteers, both in Greater Waterville and in Kotlas. For the Kotlas Connection, the project leaders were Mary Coombs, teacher of the gifted and talented at Winslow Junior High School, Philip Gonyar, a history teacher retired from Waterville High School, Patricia Hanson, a Russian scholar with computer experience, and Peter Garrett, a hydrogeologist and founder of the sister city effort. In Kotlas, the principal organizers were Yelena Chirkova, assistant director of the House of Children's Creativity and Lyuba Zinovkina, a teacher of English at School #3 in Kotlas.
Financially, the rivers project was the Kotlas Connection's most ambitious undertaking since we sent a cargo container of humanitarian aid to Kotlas in 1992. We raised approximately $30,000 for the exchange, including generous grants received from the Coburn Foundation, the Oak Grove Foundation, Emery and Garrett Groundwater, the Central Maine Newspapers, the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, the Acorn Foundation, S.A.P.P.I., the Margaret Chase Smith Library, and Chinet. The Kotlas Connection and the parents of the Waterville area project participants also held several fundraisers, including a sale of Russian Christmas ornaments, the raffle of a painting by a Kotlas artist, and a concert by the Liberty Balalaika Ensemble.
By Patricia Hanson & Gregor Smith