This August, I rode the morning Metra from Glencoe into the city for work and assumed my usual spot in the upper half of the train so I wouldn’t have to share a seat or conversation. As I opened my laptop, a man in a nearby seat leaned in my direction and said, “Do you always work on the train?”
I looked up to find a smiling older gentleman wearing a white name tag bearing his name, his home state (North Carolina), and the words: Friendship Force International. I was weary; I tend to be the kind of open-faced person who gets invited to other people’s churches or multi-level marketing presentations and I just wasn’t in the mood. The man’s friend, also wearing a name tag (but from Oklahoma), asked, “What kind of work do you do?” Then a woman a few seats down slid over and cheerfully said, “I want in on this conversation!” I was suddenly flanked by curious retirees — and it turned out to be lovely.
We spent the next 36 minutes learning about each other. They had questions about my job as the editor for a Chicago tech startup called PartySlate and I had questions — so many questions — about why they were here and where, exactly, they were going sporting those name tags. They explained that they were traveling, mostly from Oklahoma, to Chicago with a group of about 20 other Friendship Force members, to whom they gestured, garnering us a few friendly waves.
I learned that Friendship Force is part exchange program, part VRBO/Airbnb, part travel agency, part diplomacy program, and all learning and fun. The organization is not religious, political, or for-profit. The group exists solely, as their website says, to offer its members the opportunity to “Experience Different Views. Find Common Ground.” They accomplish this lofty goal through travel home stays to different cities and countries, to learn about new cultures and make new friends.
Friendship Force International was endorsed by President Carter on March 1, 1977 (World Friendship Day). Carter asked each governor to identify a volunteer leader to serve as their state’s director for the the program. The group’s first trip was a literal exchange with 762 members (called “ambassadors”) simultaneously traveling to each other’s homes in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England and Atlanta, Georgia. During its first five years, a few large similar two-way exchanges were conducted each year. Now the program has grown to include 60 countries on six continents with 15,000 active members taking approximately 300 smaller group trips (called “journeys”) per year.
When I confessed to Kaitlyn Ranney, Friendship Force’s Director of Marketing and Communications, that I wasn’t previously familiar with the organization, she conceded that the group is a “best kept secret,” but that she’s hoping to change that and grow membership to even greater numbers. Generally, recruitment for the group occurs via word-of-mouth — when current members tell friends, co-workers, or family members about recent travel experiences then they express interest in getting involved too. The group is organized into local clubs; Chicagoland boasts two clubs: a Chicago chapter and a Northern Illinois group; the San Francisco Bay Area plays host to one club while nearby Napa-Sonoma hosts another chapter.
Journeys may be organized between member clubs (as was the case with the Oklahoma ambassadors I met who traveled en-masse to Chicago with one lone North Carolinian joining to visit their Chicago hosts). But there are also global and humanitarian journeys that are curated and planned through the Friendship Force’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. These journeys are open to all members and often include a multi-cultural group of ambassadors traveling to a central location.
Membership is diverse, but does tend to skew a little older. Ranney says, “Most members are older adults, with some retired and some who’ve been around since beginning. But there are certainly members in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. The group is open to all ages and generations. ‘Understanding across barriers’ pertains to age as well.” She mentions that a mixed-age French Canadian club traveled to Guadalupe where the ambassador children went to school with the host children, then the following year that group visited Canada. And this past June saw the Friendship Force’s first global youth journey to Japan — with young people from countries including the U.S., Russia, and Australia spending 10 days hosted by three Japanese clubs.
It was exactly this kind of forward-thinking cultural enterprise that garnered Friendship Force a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Specifically, the nomination was in response to initiatives between the United States and the Soviet Union toward a greater understanding. Similar exchanges saw ambassadors from Japan’s Hiroshima visiting Chicago for a “cities rebuilding”-themed journey that included tours of areas rebuilt and still standing after the Chicago fire — including a visit to the city’s fire department training academy located on the famed site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, which was rumored to be the starting point of the fire.
Regardless of a journey’s impetus, theme, or organization, its structure includes these key ingredients: home-stays; a welcome party; cultural visits; individual time with hosts to learn about their hobbies, work, and towns; and a farewell party. Scott Oliver, a member of the Friendship Force club of Northern Illinois, acted as the “journey coordinator” for the Oklahoma group that visited Chicago. In that role, he worked with other local club members to plan a five-day itinerary that included a welcome picnic on Lake Bluff beach, an architectural walking tour and boat ride around the city, and a visit to the lesser-known (but highly-recommended by Oliver) First Division Museum in Cantigny Park.
Oliver says that, in addition to the insights he gains when traveling with Friendship Force, he’s learned a lot about his own city. He’s visited a glass-blowing museum, taken foreign groups to Chicago’s film festival, and more. He enjoys staying in host homes when he travels. “My wife and I stayed with a German family in that country. The wife spoke English, which was really helpful, but she was called away for two days to aid her ailing mother. We spent a humorous time pointing to food and doing a lot of gesturing with her husband. We really appreciate meeting our hosts’ neighbors, friends, and relatives — really getting to learn about and make new friends,” says Oliver.
His excellent points underscore the fact that even if you don’t enjoy travel or have an extra room to offer, there are still many ways to get involved with Friendship Force and to learn about other cultures. You can serve as a journey coordinator or join the board of your local club. You can be on a committee to organize trips and spend time on tours and at parties with visiting ambassadors.
In a video about the organization, the narrator says of a journey: “They shared more than just their culture; they shared their lives with us — and we shared the same with them. And that’s when we understood the value of what we were doing, the value of a family welcoming a stranger, the value of a stranger becoming a friend.”
When my three new friends and I parted ways at the Metra train’s last stop, they each asked for my business card so they could “follow my career” and we went about our day, all a little richer for the interaction.
Feature photo by Adrian Infernus on Unsplash.
Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Her work has appeared in various literary and mainstream magazines and on National Public Radio, and her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Pamela has been a regular Make It Better contributor since 2013. When she’s not behind a keyboard or a camera, she’s trying new recipes and restaurants and adding another layer of clothing because she’s always cold. Pamela is also a supporter of no-kill shelters and animal rescue organizations (her favorites are PAWS Chicago and Best Friends in Utah). Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pamelarothbard.