Tuesday, 1 March 2011

World Friendship Day

Today, although very few people will realise it, is World Friendship Day.

And, I hear you ask, what is that?

The short answer is that it is special day, created by Friendship Force International five years ago, to celebrate global friendships and understanding. Which, of course, leads to the next question: what is Friendship Force International?
The Friendship Force was established in March 1977 with the support of U.S. President Jimmy Carter whose wife, Rosalynn Carter, served as the Honorary Chairperson of the Friendship Force for the first 25 years of its existence. The objective of the Friendship Force is best summed up by its original motto – "A World of Friends is a World of Peace" – and what makes the Friendship Force different from many other organisations with similar aims is its emphasis on "home stay".

The first ever Friendship Force exchange took place in July 1977 when a Boeing 747 loaded with 381 British "Ambassadors" flew from Newcastle upon Tyne to Atlanta, Georgia, where the ambassadors would stay in the homes of American hosts in and around Atlanta for the next two weeks. The next day the plane returned with a similar number of American ambassadors, who spent the following two weeks staying in the homes of British hosts in and around Newcastle. Many of the friendships that were made during that initial exchange still continue to this day.

Since then more than 600,000 people in 70 countries have stayed in the homes of new friends in other countries and learned that sharing a home for a few days is an ideal way to make new friendships, to learn about life, culture, beliefs, and even misunderstandings, in other countries – both well-known and less well-known. The Friendship Force consists of clubs representing a particular geographical area, and today exchanges typically involve 15-20 ambassadors from one club visiting another club for a week-long stay, during which the ambassadors will get to know their hosts, as well as other members of the host club, and will spend the week in a mixture of organised visits to places of interest in the locality and private excursions with their own individual hosts.

I am a member of the Friendship Force of Derbyshire, one of 19 UK clubs, which was founded in 1982. In that year our first exchange involved some 80 ambassadors from Oklahoma visiting Derbyshire and staying in the homes of local people, followed by a similar number visiting Oklahoma later the same year. Since then our club has made a total of 45 visits to clubs in 13 countries, plus six to other UK clubs, while we have welcomed visitors from 16 countries during the course of 50 exchanges, as well as six visits by members of other UK clubs.

This picture was taken during the exchange visit by the Friendship Force of Bavaria in 2007 when the Mayor of Derby welcomed both hosts and ambassadors to a reception in the Derby Council House. Some of the ambassadors were surprised to see a painting of a Lancaster bomber hanging on the wall until it was explained that the famous 617 Squadron had practised their bouncing bomb runs at the nearby Derwent Dams before the Dambusters Raid in 1943. Many of our German guests had seen the film!

During our exchange visit to Wisconsin in 2009 we experienced this unusual form of transport which was used to take both hosts and ambassadors round a huge dairy farm. The 3000 cows live indoors for all of their lives, apart from the short walk to the milking parlour where they are milked three times each day.

Hosts and Ambassadors at the Catholic University of Leuven in 2010
Of course there is always a mixture of organised visits and more informal experiences. In 2010, for example, we spent a most enjoyable week in Leuven in Belgium where, apart from visiting the oldest university in Belgium, the Catholic University of Leuven, and various interesting sights in both Leuven and Antwerp, we had plenty of opportunity to experiment with some of the hundreds of different beers for which Belgium is rightly famed!

In 2011 we shall be visiting Cottbus in Eastern Germany and welcoming guests from San Diego, in California, while next year we expect to visit both Turkey and the United States and to receive guests from Hungary. In addition some of our members will be travelling as far afield as Indonesia and South America with other UK clubs. We shall make new friends and, possibly, meet old ones again. And we shall continue to demonstrate that a World of Friends is a World of Peace.

As I said at the beginning, today is World Friendship Day. And in today's uncertain climate we really do need world friendship.

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