Above: After dinner, Friendship Force club members take time for a little group dancing. Photos by Julie E. Bloemeke.

For John Wilhelm, much of the attraction of membership in the travel club known as the Friendship Force of Greater Atlanta is being able to truly experience other countries and cultures, not just as a tourist, but by getting to know the people who live there.

“Until you sit at the same dining table with someone, you really don’t get to know people,” said Wilhelm, a former Friendship Force International Regional Field Representative, former Atlanta club president and a current Journey Coordinator for the club.

“We get to see all of the feature tourist spots,” he said, “but you also get to see all of the little things… [it is a great way to get to] know how people think.”

Friendship Force in Atlanta

The Greater Atlanta chapter of Friendship Force International boasts 81 active members. It’s one of four Friendship Force clubs in Georgia, and one of 350 clubs worldwide. The non-profit cultural organization, according to its website, is “focused on promoting understanding, cultural education and citizen diplomacy through homestay journeys and personal friendships.”

FFGA member Ron Scott, left, chats with Marty McKnew, a Friendship Force member visiting from California and staying with the Scotts while in Atlanta. The Scotts met McKnew during a trip to Canada.

When members of the Atlanta club travel, they spend time in the homes of families in other countries. In turn, they host visitors in their own homes. The idea is to have visitors from places the club has visited in order to build friendships among people around the world, but all exchanges are not necessarily one-for-one. Sometimes members will host club members from one country and later visit a different location.

These exchanges contribute to the mission of Friendship Force, which is to “promote global understanding across the barriers that separate people…and make a contribution to global goodwill [by seeking to] overcome differences among people and nations.”

Wilhelm enjoys being able to be both a host and a guest. “During a home stay you have to be “on” and you have to put your best foot forward,” he said.

And as a guest in other homes, members are expected to do the same. He and his wife, Glenda Wilhelm, have been members since 2000. “We have a great time; the more we travel together, the better it is!” Glenda Wilhelm said.

The Egypt Trip

The Wilhelms are overseeing the club’s upcoming trip to Egypt this year, Oct. 17 through 24. Trip highlights include visits to Cairo, the Pyramids andAlexandria. Two optional trip extensions are also offered. Travelers may choose to add: a Nile cruise with visits to Luxor and/or an Israel extension with visits to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Tel Aviv and more.

Glenda and John Wilhelm model headgear presented
to them as leaders of the club’s trip to Egypt.

As part of the pre-travel kickoff, club members, both those registered for the Egypt journey and not, recently met at Nicola’s restaurant in Atlanta to celebrate with Lebanese fare. After a multi-course dinner featuring a range of Middle Eastern cuisine — including a sampling of fattoush, baba ghanouj and baklava — there was a celebratory air, complete with group dancing, music and reminiscing over past excursions.

In anticipation of the upcoming journey, club members gave the Wilhelms— affectionately called “Pharaoh John” and “High Priestess Glenda” — costumeEgyptian headwear. There was a Nemes crown, the striped headcloth worn by pharaohs, for him and a beaded headdress reminiscent of Cleopatra, for her.

Robin Scott, current president of the Greater Atlanta chapter, and a club member for more than 10 years, echoed the Wilhelms’ feelings about the club’s travels. “My philosophy is to not judge until you have walked in another’s shoes,” she said. “It’s what we all should live our lives by. Once you meet and get to know people, share a meal in their house, it just opens up a whole new world to you.”

Robin Scott and her husband Ron’s interest in Friendship Force kicked off after having an exchange daughter from the former Soviet Union, who not only “opened our world” but “opened our world to travel.”

According to Scott, her “number one bucket trip” has been to Machu Picchu, where she had the opportunity to see Incan ruins up close. She not only marveled over South American culture, but also over the beauty and structure of the ruins and the precision of placement. “They [the stones] are so close together you cannot put a piece of paper between them,” she said.

A Dream Trip

For Anne Lawing and her husband, Harvey Young, imagination has played a great part in their Friendship Force adventures. Charter members since 1976, they hosted visitors from an exchange between Newcastle, England, and Atlanta. This later led to a “dream trip” to Cornwall in 1976, as well as a return trip in 2012.

Lawing says she was particularly captivated by “the lovely wild countryside, gorgeous views of the ocean, [and learning about] the history of piracy.” While standing on the cliffs, she felt transported in time. “You could just imagine seeing the pirates [sailing in] when looking from the cliffs.”

Nicola’s Restaurant owner Nicola Ayoub delivers a bottle of wine to FFGA member Cynthia Williams.

Joanna Hanes-Lahr, a member since 1979, has done so many exchanges and journeys that she has almost lost count. Travel highlights have included trips to Cuba, Vietnam, Berlin and New Zealand, but one of her most cherished memories occurred when she was invited to work in British Television as part of her Friendship Force journey to England.

Going to work with the BCC was a highlight,” Hanes-Lahr said. “We were in the studio, filming in England and Scotland, covering a story on youth groups.”

During her maiden visit to England, she also achieved the dream of a lifetime — she took a train to the town of Stogumber to visit the birthplace of her grandfather. She was particularly thrilled because she was also able to “visit with the family that now has the farm were granddaddy was born,” she said.

As her first trip outside of the United States, the journey to England taught Hanes-Lahr “that I could feel at home in other places. I felt perfectly comfortable working in other countries thanks to Friendship Force.” She is looking forward to her next adventure to South American in the spring.

The South American Trip

Orchestrated by Bonnie Evans, Journey Coordinator and Vice President of Friendship Force’s Greater Atlanta chapter, the South American journey will travel to Bogotá, Quito and the Galápagos and is set for April 2019. Twenty members are currently signed up, with two on the waiting list and slots available for eight more.

Some of the many trip highlights include: a welcoming reception complete with music, Bogotá members showcasing traditional dress and dancing, including lessons in salsa and the tango; touring the Old City in Quito and visiting the Intiñan Solar Museum located at latitude 00° 00’ 00” thus marking the division between northern and southern hemisphere; and the Galápagos, where there will be a multi-island tour featuring snorkel excursions and animal observations including blue-footed boobies, iguanas and giant tortoises. Some members will stay for an additional encounter with the Huaorani Tribe in the Amazon Basin.

Friendship Force Facts and Follow-up

Wayne Smith was the founder of Friendship Force. President Jimmy Carter introduced Friendship Force International on March 1, 1977, at a White House gathering where he asked each state governor to identify a volunteer leader to serve as State Director. Rosalynn Carter served as honorary chairperson until 2002.

Though Friendship Force of Greater Atlanta (FFGA)encourages membership, it isn’t required for participation in journeys. In order to register for a trip, an application to the Journey Coordinator usually is required. Additionally, members don’t have to live in a certain area to participate in a journey. For example, Wisconsin members may participate in an excursion coordinated by a Georgia member.

For more information on journeys, becoming a host and membership, visit thefriendshipforce.org.

Friendship Force International publishes an ongoing catalog featuring upcoming destinations; details can be found at friendshipforce.org/journeys. It’s the place to get more information or register for the Bogota, Quito or Galapagos journeys.

Julie E. Bloemeke

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.