Dr. Bruce McIntyre remembers how the government of Kyrgyzstan rolled out the red carpet for him and other Friendship Force travelers who visited in 1991. They were the first American group to visit shortly after the country had declared its independence as the Soviet Union broke up.
An ambassador for Kyrgyzstan met the group at the Moscow airport and carried their luggage, then sang to the travelers in his beautiful tenor voice on the bus ride to their destination. When they arrived in the newly independent country, the government’s top officials greeted them.
“We thought we were really important,” McIntyre, 96, said with a laugh.
Clarice Bush remembers that same trip, how a ballet company gave their group a private performance at the opera hall. She also remembers a long-ago field trip in Thailand to a place where they saw firsthand how multiple brass coils were placed around young girls’ necks, a longstanding cultural tradition of the women in the villages of northern Thailand.
Priscilla French, who says she is “passionate about travel,” remembers her Friendship Force trip to Russia, where she spent a month in Russia on a service-oriented exchange, working in a classroom to help children practice their English.
Members of the Friendship Force of Flathead Valley have experienced a wide range of adventures and travel experiences since the group was granted its charter by Friendship Force International in 1986, but a common theme emerges as they tell their stories. Traveling to other countries and hosting foreign guests here in the Flathead promotes a global understanding across the barriers that separate people. That message of cultural understanding has been Friendship Force International’s mission for 40 years.
French aptly points out the organization’s motto: “A world of friends is a world of peace.”
Founded in Atlanta by the Rev. Wayne Smith and unveiled by President Jimmy Carter in March 1977, Friendship Force is a nonprofit cultural organization that promotes understanding, cultural education and citizen diplomacy through home-stay exchanges — now called journeys — and personal friendships.
The international organization is based in more than 60 countries on six continents and has 15,000 active members worldwide.
The Flathead Valley group took flight, so to speak, in the mid-1980s when McIntyre’s wife, Winogene, dearly wanted to travel to Japan and put an advertisement in the Daily Inter Lake for an organizational dinner. More than 30 people showed up for that meeting, he recalled.
“From that a club was immediately formed,” McIntyre said.
That inaugural Friendship Force trip to Japan would be the first of many for the McIntyres. When they asked their Japanese hosts how they could repay the kindness and hospitality they’d been shown, the answer was this: “We come Montana!”
The Japanese brought a party of nine travelers to the Flathead. The McIntyres could accommodate seven, and they tapped Jim and Sylvia Murphy to host the other two. That opened the door for the Murphys’ involvement with Friendship Force. The Murphys’ daughter, Mary Pat, remembers how the Japanese guests arrived with the man leading the way, and woman following behind with the luggage — an eye-opener to a different culture.
“My dad cleared the table and helped with the dishes. It was such a contrast” to the Japanese customs, Mary Pat recalled.
Mary Pat traveled with her mother to Japan and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
“Mom always hosted when she was able, and if she couldn’t have guests she’d have a dinner,” Mary Pat said. “It was a fun and important part of their life.”
Sylvia Murphy and Winogene McIntyre have since passed away, but their contributions to the local Friendship Force club left a legacy of promoting cultural understanding.
Over the years the Friendship Force of Flathead Valley has entertained visitors from numerous countries, from Brazil and Mexico to New Caledonia and the Galapagos Islands.
In a typical Friendship Force program, a local club prepares an itinerary of cultural activities, inviting members from clubs in other countries to stay with them in their homes for up to a week, said current club president Carol Beaudion, who joined in 2012.
Friendship Force members are able to travel with any number of other clubs who may have space available for their upcoming journeys, French pointed out. She joined a club from Oregon, for example, when she went to Russia.
Joyce Hrouda, a member since 2000, helps coordinate the exchanges and said being involved in the club has been “a wonderful experience.” She had barely retired from her job as manager of the local Social Security office when she was asked to host a family from Mexico. She hit the ground running in Friendship Force and has been active ever since.
Meeting new people and learning about other cultures are the big benefits of belonging to Friendship Force.
“I’ve stayed in homes in various countries and they show you things you maybe normally wouldn’t see,” Hrouda said. “It’s a wonderful experience to know there are nice people all over the world.”
Bush agreed. When she traveled to Hiroshima, her hosts presented an authentic tea service and had them dress in $50,000 kimonos for a one-of-a-kind experience.
The friendships are long-lasting, Bush added. “I am getting letters from people who stayed with us 20 years ago.”
Friendship Force of Flathead Valley generally has six business meetings each year, which include socializing, a dinner, club meeting and programs given by club members or other travelers. The club currently has more than 50 members.
Annual dues are $25 for an individual and $43 for a family. To learn more visit www.friendshipforceinternational.com, and to inquire about the local club email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.