Friendship Force boosts goodwill through travel

Turkish children learn Wisconsin magic tricks. (Submitted photo)

If tears flow at the end, as they are known to do, you can bet it’s a sign that the trip was successful.

That’s because when the Friendship Force travels, the journey extends beyond tourist sites and souvenirs. Participants sometimes make meaningful connections as they are introduced to the lives of average people in other cultures.

The international organization, established in the 1970s, has two chapters in Wisconsin: Friendship Force of Wisconsin (189 members, based in Madison) and the 90-member Friendship Force of Greater Milwaukee.

George and Sandi Wysock, Madison, have visited Costa Rica twice in three years because of a friendship that began through a Friendship Force trip. Their host family also has visited them in Wisconsin.

Language differences have been a challenge but not a barrier.

“With Facebook and the Internet, it’s easy to stay in contact,” notes Sandi. George has since become president of the nonprofit organization’s Madison chapter.

Trips also occur within the United States. The couple’s first exchange was to Great Falls, Mont., a train trip and good way to gingerly experience Friendship Force while also visiting a son in the area.

The Wysocks are recent retirees who also were part of a 28-person delegation to Turkey, and they have hosted travelers from Russia. Sandi is organizing details for an upcoming delegation to Russia.

Their first step of involvement was as day hosts for Friendship Force ambassadors from Australia. That meant accompanying visitors during a daytime itinerary, until reuniting with overnight hosts.

Friendship Force headquarters will match chapters for these travel exchanges, then assign home stays that match like-minded participants.

Non-smokers, for example, don’t end up in smoking households. Sandy notes an interest in fiber arts and that she’s a master gardener. George’s interests include golf and hiking. So the travel itinerary might include some of these things.

Visits to schools or libraries also are typical. “The kids like having a chance to practice their English with native speakers,” says Sandi.

Small-group travel holds the potential for deeper personal connections than typical bus tours. Being part of a group, especially when far away, adds a sense of comfort.

“All of us like to travel and want to meet people from different cultures,” George says. Membership is open to anyone, and travelers represent many walks of life, blue to white collars. The average U.S. participant is around 50 years old.

The trips are “a little less predictable than having a tour agent,” Sandi adds, “so it helps to have a sense of adventure.”

Challenges might involve language, culture or physical fitness. Sandi wants her delegation to Russia, for example, to be able to walk four flights of stairs with a 40-pound suitcase, to navigate underground transportation.

The chapter heads to Indonesia in 2013. Soon a search for Global Food Exchange hosts begins; this themed exchange emphasizes indigenous foods, food traditions and businesses in Madison.

Travelers do not need to live in the Madison area to participate; some Friendship Force ambassadors from outlying communities are day hosts for visiting delegations. The Madison chapter includes members from as far away as Stevens Point and Door County.

People also aren’t limited to traveling with their own chapter. Sandi’s trip to Russia includes two Friendship Force ambassadors from Nebraska. A member from Taiwan is on the trip wait list.

Sometimes travel involves a wide geographic area. Example: The Milwaukee chapter organized an exchange for grandparents and grandchildren. Ambassadors from Germany and Asia met in Milwaukee for touring and then went to San Francisco.

Home stays cut the cost of travel. Price depends upon the destination, length of stay and itinerary. The Wysocks’ 17-day trip to Turkey, for example, cost about $2,700, including airfare.

“You can see tons of stuff on any travel tour, but what we have are opportunities to see how people live, eat and interact,” George says.

That might mean dining on a homemade olive mix for breakfast, meeting children at school, waking up to a beautiful view of the Aegean Sea or watching flatbread rolled and baked.

For more about Friendship Force International, based in Atlanta: the www.friendshipforce.org, 404-522-9490. Contact the Wisconsin chapters through www.ffwis.org (Madison area) or www.friendshipforcemilwaukee.org (Milwaukee area).

Membership is $30 per year ($38 for a family).

Wisconsin soon sends a 20-person goodwill delegation to its sister state of Chiba, Japan. Home stays are a part of the Sept. 22-29 experience. The nonprofit Wisconsin Chiba Inc. still is in need of delegates to fill the Women of Wings component of this program.

Apply as soon as possible. For details: www.wisconsinchiba.org.

Interested in small-group travel to a foreign country but not home stays? Dr. Xiping Zhou of Madison needs at least four more people to sign up for his Aug. 1-16 tour to China. The trip, to involve a minimum of 12 people, includes a three-night Yangtze River cruise.

For details: www.chinadelighttour.com/blog, 608-236-9000. The acupuncturist has led 17 trips to China.