The Friendship Force: a foreign exchange for adults
When Anna Rome signed up to be a Friendship Force "ambassador" she had no idea where she would wind up. All she was told when she paid her $333 was that the 10-day trip could mean living in a mud hut or an igloo.Skip to next paragraph
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But the enthusiastic, gray-haired woman had no qualms, even when it was announced a month before the trip that the destination would be Hamburg -- and her knowledge of German was nonexistent.
"I have a mental block on languages," she confided with a grin, "but I firmly believe that a smile and a lost look . . . people stop me right here in Boston and ask me, 'Are you lost? Do you need help?,' so I'm not afraid."
The Friendship Force is a nonprofit organization chartered in March 1977. Its aim is to promote peace in the world through "the force of friendship" -- by arranging exchange visits between US cities and cities abroad. Headed by the Rev. Wayne Smith (although there is no affiliation with any church), the program is actually an offshoot of a project started in 1973 by the then governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. He and Mrs. Carter were part of a 10-day, 200-member exchange program involving citizens of Georgia and citizens of the State of Pernambuco, Brazil.
Basically the program works as follows. A planeload of American citizens from one community flies to a city outside the United States. At the same time, an equal number of citizens from that city fly to the originating US community. The travelers stay in the homes of volunteer private citizens who have similar occupations, and join them in their everyday life.
Thus far, 71 exchanges involving over 32,000 "ambassadors" and 55,000 hosts have taken place, with 42 more planned for 1981. Cities involved have included Atlanta gia and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England; Des Moines and Dublin; Harrisburg, Pa., and Mexico City; Helena, Mont., and Seoul; and Madison, Wis., and Zurich.
"I guess I'm prejudiced," Dr. Smith says with a laugh, "but I think we're extremely successful. . . ." He says that most of the cities that have participated have asked to do it again, and some, such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berlin, have had as many as six or seven exchanges, with thousands of people there still eagerly awaiting another chance to participate.
"I know there are high school exchanges such as American Field Service, and international living on the college level, but this is the first time I heard that adults would have a chance to do the same thing," Mrs. Rome says. (Organizations such as Servas International do include adults in such programs, but Friendship Force is one of the first to do so on such a large scale.)
Applicants are carefully screened to determine their adaptability and willingness to take things in stride. One of the questions asked Mrs. Rome was "What would you do if, when you got to the airport or railroad terminal, the host family that was supposed to meet you wasn't there?"
"And being a very honest person," she said laughing, "my answer was, 'I would panic -- but I wouldn't move from there till someone came to claim me.' No, seriously, there's always somebody in a public place like that who can speak English --
Mrs. Rome's outlook seems to be shared by most Friendship Force travelers, says Vera Armen, coordinator of the Boston-Hamburg trip. "The whole reason they came in was because they'd say, 'Hey, this is something I'd really love to do! . . . That's the whole idea of this -- you get people who are adventuresome, spirited, concerned, to bring some of America to other people, and share."
The hosts are just as enthusiastic about sharing their homes with visitors from abroad. Mary Darmstaetter, who has done some traveling herself, was especially excited about being a hostess.
"If you've done any traveling it's so marvelous if you find someone along the way, and you get invited to their house. Even if it's just for coffee and cake, it's great to be able to sit and talk about what your world is like."