Imagine traveling to a foreign country to stay in the home of strangers, eat their food and be escorted around by them. And then returning the favor when they come to visit.
That’s the idea behind Friendship Force, an international organization whose 100-member Kansas chapter is going strong after nearly 40 years.
“They know their country very well, you’re visiting in their home, and that’s the best way to find out about their culture, which you can’t do in a hotel,” said Lottie Miller, a retired elementary school principal who’s been to Costa Rico, Peru, Africa and Sweden with Friendship Force. “Then you hope at some point they will come here.”
Friendship Force was launched in 1977 by a Georgia minister and President Jimmy Carter as a way to improve intercultural relations outside of official channels. Today, it has about 15,000 members in more than 60 countries and on six continents, who together make some 300 trips a year.
The Kansas chapter started in 1983 and has been one of the most active, being named “Club of the Year” in 1999 and 2013. Most members live within a 50-mile radius of Wichita.
Steve and Kathy Smith joined six years ago, after retiring from their jobs as a refinery engineer and special education teacher. They’ve been to Australia, Canada, Japan and Kazakhstan.
“We like the idea of meeting people,” Steve, the Wichita chapter’s president, said. “Making new friends, sitting at their table, meeting their children and grandchildren.”
Smith said members “are all somewhat gregarious people, somewhat idealistic. That’s one thing I like about the club.”
The Smiths have enjoyed several memorable experiences. In Japan, for instance, they stayed in a home near Mt. Fuji and hiked to the timber line of the famous peak. They visited Buddhist and Shinto shrines and, since their host knew Steve is a baseball fan, took in a professional game (Smith later took them to a Royals game in Kansas City). In Kazakhstan, they ate dinner in a yurt, the traditional round tent of the Central Asian plains. “A lot of horsemeat,” Smith recalled with a laugh. “A lot of different dishes and boy, we tried all of them.”
The Smiths are just as excited about playing hosts to visiting foreigners, which they’ve done on several occasions. Apparently, Kansas’ reputation is still wrapped up with that of the Old West.
“Everybody that comes, they want to personally meet John Wayne and go out and see cowboys,” Smith said.
They take visitors to Old Cowtown Museum, Mid America All-
Indian Center, Botanica, the Flint Hills, the Kansas Aviation Museum and various barbecue restaurants. A Japanese guest “couldn’t wait to go see a buffalo” in the Flint Hills. “He thought they were as big as an elephant.” A group from Tapei happened to be in town for the Sundowner Parade that opens Riverfest. The Smiths took another group to the Kansas Food Bank to help package food for an hour before heading to a restaurant.
Diane Schuetz, who’s hosted several groups, said members often stage backyard cookouts “since that’s such an American thing to do.”
“It’s really interesting when you get to talk to these people. They’re so fun and enthusiastic.”
Friendship Force trips, which are called “journeys,” started out as exchanges in which clubs from two different countries sent members to visit each other at the same time. These days, however, the visits aren’t simultaneous. The international headquarters in Atlanta coordinates things.
Another change was the addition of domestic trips. Next year, for instance, members of the Wichita chapter expect to visit Missoula, Mont., and host guests from Santa Barbara, Calif.
Steve Smith said visitors and hosts often turn into friends. While hosting a group from Serbia, Smith said, “they said if you ever come to Europe, you’ll have to come visit us.” The Smiths did. Thanks to social media, many keep in regular contact.
“I loved my trip to Kenya and the people I stayed with,” Miller said. “The activities we did were phenomenal. You make friends forever. The was 2013, and I’m still in contact with them.”
The Wichita chapter cancelled a planned trip to Germany this year because of the coronavirus pandemic but hopes to resume traveling as soon as it’s deemed safe.
Most members are retired, with the time and money to travel. Staying in peoples’ homes cuts down on hotel and food costs, but members say that’s not the reason they participate.
“It’s the long-lasting relationships that you don’t get on any other trip with a travel club,” Miller said.