War, in Roger Vadim’s campy 1968 sci-fi film Barbarella, was “selfish competition” resulting from “archaic insecurity” and existing in a “primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility.” The Universe,” according to Jane Fonda’s title character, had been “pacified for centuries.” Love and peace ruled the Earth and the known Universe.
A ridiculous movie, of course, with laughable production values and thoroughly tongue-in-cheek dialog…but the producers did make a point about war and peace. Why is it we human beings periodically feel the need to bomb the socks off our neighbors…and why can’t we seem to quit doing it, even though we all pretty much agree that wars are disastrous?
A group of forward-thinking men and women in Western North Carolina has what they think may eventually help us overcome our “archaic insecurity” and live in a more enlightened state. Their club, called Friendship Force International (FFI), is part of a borderless effort to bring about peace through simply getting to know our foreign counterparts as friends.
The mission of FFI, according to long-time member and former Exchange Director Bill Wilkes, is “to promote global understanding across the barriers that separate people. Personally, I think that is a bit dry. I like to think we are doing a part in promoting world peace, and helping improve the image of the US overseas by being good ambassadors when we travel and good hosts when people come to visit.”
“We currently have about 115 members,” Wilkes explains. “Nationally, there are several thousand members. Internationally, we have 18,000 members in 371 clubs in 54 countries. We recruit members through word of mouth, invitations to our friends, and talking about our experiences to anyone who shows an interest in our organization. The last people I invited were a couple I met at Southern Appalachian Brewery and a cousin who recently moved to town.
“Our club, which was founded in 1979, was one of the very first clubs organized in Friendship Force, International. Marie Colton was the first person to lead the club. She was a state legislator from Asheville, and was asked by then Governor Jim Hunt to see if she could start a club. Hunt, in turn, had been asked by President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter to identify leaders in North Carolina who might form a club.”
The club’s basic function is to host foreign visitors in members’ homes and to travel to other countries where they are hosted by local citizens there. The idea is that we would be unlikely to drop bombs on folks who have had us over for a week of dining and conversation.
It’s a simple concept, but one that requires a high level of organization.
Each year, club members vote on the countries they would most like to visit. A list of the top choices is sent to FFI headquarters in Atlanta. The staff in Atlanta then pairs clubs that are traveling with clubs that are hosting. A single exchange is usually seven days long, although they sometimes arrange for short visits (three to six days) to other clubs within the US. When an exchange is agreed upon, one person in each club is assigned the task of making all necessary preparations for their club. These two people jointly plan the exchange.
“My wife Judy and I have had Russian visitors in our home at least a dozen times,” says Wilkes, “and hosted the head of the Duma in Ivanovo, Russia, and his family for a social visit in November.”
The club has enjoyed visits to 23 different countries and has hosted people from 18 countries over a 30 year period,
FFI is funded in several ways. Each member pays dues annually. In addition, the members stage fund raising events such as auctions, round robin dinners, and raffles. Whenever our club organizes a trip to another club, each traveling member (known as an ambassador) pays the club $25 in return for the work of planning the trip (known as an exchange). Incoming ambassadors pay the local club to prepare a week of activities for them. They pay only enough to cover the cost of the program — usually around $100 per person.
“Our members are typically retirees,” says Wilkes, “and this is largely true within the US. In other countries, there is a much wider age range. We have welcomed ambassadors as young as 13 (a boy who came with his grandmother) and as old as 86. We have stayed with hosts as young as 25 or so, and as old as 75 or more. I think that in the US, younger people are too busy making money or putting kids through school to travel overseas.
“In other countries, I believe, people have a much more cosmopolitan world view and recognize that it can be valuable to visit other countries, even when they are young. The people from Russia who visited us in November were a couple with 3 children, one married, one in college, and an 8-year-old. Only the parents and the 8-year-old came. We visited them in 2009 for a week.
There is more involved that traveling and hosting, though. The club has a policy of donating at least $500 every year to a charitable cause, Wilkes says. “We have helped pay for a new roof on a school in Peru, bought supplies for a hospital for the blind in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, and helped fund an orphanage in Kstovo, Russia.”
The club and its affiliates around the world are optimistic about the role of FFI in changing attitudes and events…and who knows, maybe peace and love really can actually rule the Earth and the known Universe some day.
“Two years ago,” says Bill Wilkes, “our FFI club hosted 32 teenagers from Indonesia for a week, and in 2011 we hosted an additional 24. The kids and their parents were so appreciative of their experience in North Carolina that we were invited to visit them in their homes. Twenty-three of us spent nearly two weeks in Indonesia this summer followed by a stop in Bangkok. In Bangkok, we were even given a half-day tour and presentation within the US Embassy.
The students and teachers, says FFI member Doug Judkins who directed the Indonesian exchange, were from S-Man 8 High School in Jakarta, Indonesia. The group had been selected as the elite students from the school. The students, age 16 – 17, were in their senior year.
The students, says Judkins, “were wonderful, spoke good English and were well-behaved. While here they were home hosted by our club members. They were with us for 6 days and moved on for 6 days with other clubs.
“We all fell in love with these wonderful students and arranged a lot of activities for them. The highlights of their activities were attending West High school and Hendersonville High School. We also had a pizza party just for the students and their newly-made high school friends. Many of them still stay in touch with each other.
“When the students first arrived, they were a little nervous about staying with families that were their elders. That lasted the first night; after that they became part of the family and most still are.
“Most of the students had an impression they had formed from movies and news media, which they told us was totally wrong.
“We got a chance to visit them in June and July of 2012. A group of our members spent a week with them in their homes in Jakarta. It was a dream come true to be able to see our students with their families and at a farewell dinner.”
For more about Friendship Force International, visit www.ffwnc.org.