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Yesenia Castro goes to Japan as new Tsuruta coordinator

‘I thrive on learning about new cultures’

TSURUTA program’s new liaison Yesenia Castro, who heads to Japan this weekend, wears a traditional hapi coat during last month’s 40th anniversary Sister City dinner.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea.
TSURUTA program’s new liaison Yesenia Castro, who heads to Japan this weekend, wears a traditional hapi coat during last month’s 40th anniversary Sister City dinner.

Yesenia Castro leaves for Tsuruta, Japan, on Saturday, Aug. 12, the next coordinator of international relations (CIR) for Hood River’s sister city.

As CIR, she will teach English and serve as a facilitator of the sister city program, and study Japanese customs, culture and language.

It’s a position the Hood River native didn’t expect to get, but came at just the right time.

“I read the job description, and it was perfect,” Castro said. “My degree is in public health, but I’ve always enjoyed working with kids.”

However, only knowing a handful of Japanese words and phrases, she thought her lack of language skills would keep her from being considered.

She’s excited to get to work, to learn new customs and a new language. She’s gotten a head start on both, studying Japanese with friend Horoki Eda, whom Castro met at Oregon State University. She’s also borrowed audiobooks from the county library and talked about the program with mentor Maija Yasui (whose father-in-law, Ray Yasui, cofounded the sister city program 40 years ago).

Castro has been a community health worker at The Next Door, Inc., for three years; she learned of the position from a former coworker while at a conference in San Francisco. The two met for coffee, and upon hearing that one of Castro’s life goals was to live abroad, the friend mentioned the CIS position.

Castro applied in late April and learned she’d been selected mid-May.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about the world,” Castro said. “The culture is very different than mine.”

The timing was also perfect: Castro was getting ready to leave The Next Door, simply because she couldn’t find local housing, and was looking into moving to the Gresham area.

“The Next Door really was my dream job,” she said. “But this came at the perfect time … It aligned with my goals and what I needed to do next.”

She’s still very passionate about The Next Door and its mission, and “the policy work we were doing,” she said. “It’s something so important to people.

“There are social determents of health — transportation, education, mental health, housing, immigration status and income — and ways to make health better,” she said. “We are involved with city planning, we meet with Mayor Paul Blackburn, with Immigration Counseling Services.”

When it comes to health, everything is connected: If people are worried about their immigration status, they probably won’t drive, which means they can’t see a doctor. If a person isn’t making a living wage, that can also add stress.

The policy work, therefore, was about bringing different sectors together and encouraging each to reach out to the others. In fact, she said, with its cross-communication, Hood River is a role model not only in Oregon, but nationally. It hasn’t been uncommon for people in other communities to ask her how she can get someone from city hall to sit in on her meetings, for example.

It’s because “we really do try and wholeheartedly love our community,” Castro said of the people of Hood River.


Having been born in Hood River and raised in Parkdale, She has some trepidation about her move across the Pacific and starting over.

“It’s scary, building new relationships, to find out where the work is, learn about a new community and who to talk to for certain things,” Castro said.

Despite the unknowns, she’s excited about the prospect.

“I thrive learning about new cultures — I’m very passionate about learning about other people and myself,” she said.

She does, however, hope to come back.

“This is my community — I grew up here,” she said.

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