Friendship Force International Executive Director Jeremi Snook says he often meets the same type of people interested in getting involved with the organization. “They are the type to say, ‘I don’t want to be a person of hate, I don’t want pre-judge, I don’t want to stereotype. I want to meet people where they are,’” he said.
The Atlanta-based nonprofit has been around since 1977.
“Its mission is to bring people from around the world together for the purpose of increasing our understanding of the world around them,” he said. “For 40 years, they have been facilitating groups to visit people from other countries, and stay in their homes and live with them for a week or two weeks at a time.”
Groups of 15-20 travel to partnering towns around the world and stay with local families to get a firsthand look at the country and its culture. “They get to know their families, and expand their mind and understanding of that local community,” he said.
The organization started when Wayne Smith, a Presbyterian minister, started working with then-Governor Jimmy Carter on ideas to bring people from all over the world together. “They worked together to brainstorm this wild idea of what if we brought people from the United States and Russia together?” Snook said. “During a time when there were a lot of divisions in the world, he thought it would be a great idea to embark on a mission of citizen diplomacy.”
The organization’s current model has sustained them since the 80s: 360 “clubs” around the world host people in clubs from other countries. 60 countries are represented, with 16,000 members. Every year, 5,000 people travel with Friendship Force.
Snook believes that it’s so popular because people are looking for a way to connect. “If you look at the news, everybody has an opinion about what’s going on in the world,” he said. “Those opinions can really sway you to think a certain way. We were founded on the idea of planting seeds of understanding beyond the barriers that separate people. We approach first with understanding, before you form stereotypes of opinions that could possibly lead to hate.”
“These are things that resonate to a lot of people who are looking for a way to engage with the world without being influenced by the way the world says they should do,” he added. “People are looking for a way to develop themselves as global citizens because they are rejecting what they are seeing around them.”
It takes two groups to make Friendship Force work: the host club, and the traveling club. While they aren’t traveling, clubs often take part in local activities, like get-togethers and cultural events. Friendship Force trips have gone all over the world, including Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and South America. Each club will likely host a traveling club once or twice a year.
“Any club that you join can tell you stories of people they have hosted from all over the world,” Snook said.
“One thing that has really emerged in all the conversations I have had with folks is the similarity in their spirit, in the way that they think, and their desire to continue to develop themselves,” he added. “You can sign up for a cruise, you can go on a tour– you can do all those things. You can use another hosting organization to pay money to stay with somebody. But for Friendship Force members, they go with one mission in mind: they want to better themselves. They want to listen and not talk, and absorb and not try to pre-judge.”
“Expect to be changed,” he said.
Trenise asked how he had been changed since his time working with Friendship Force. He said he has an eye-opening experience during a trip to Japan right after the 2016 Presidential Election. Right after he got off the plane, a woman ran up to him, asking if he was an American. “What are we going to do?” she asked. “The election! What are we going to do?”
Snook went to a conference while he was there, where the speaker opened up the event by saying “In the last 48 hours, the world has fundamentally changed.”
“You think that your world is right here, and for me that was a really big moment to realize how interconnected the world really is,” Snook said. “I wasn’t going just to attend a conference—I was going as a citizen ambassador. I was representing a whole group of Americans.”
Snook explained how the host-family setup makes the program different than just traveling with a tour group. “The meal is the most important part of the whole home-hosting experience,” he said. “There’s a special moment that happens when you are sharing a meal together and you begin to talk about life.”
For those who are skeptical of the process and opening up their homes to strangers, Snook said there is a network of 16,000 members and a dedicated Friendship Force staff that will help answer any questions or concerns.
“You have to have the will to open up your home and try something new,” he said. “Be prepared to be changed.”
Those interested in the organization can learn more online at www.thefriendshipforce.org.
David Lee, Executive Director of the Atlanta Hawks Foundation, knows that his job is about more than just basketball.
“It’s a commitment that I have as an individual to give back to Atlanta, who has been so good to me and my family, but also what’s great is that our organization takes on that identity as well,” he said of the Foundation.
Known for their skills on the court, the Hawks also take time to give back to the community through their Foundation.
“The Atlanta Hawks Foundation exists for three areas: health, wellness, and education,” Lee said. “We focus on young people. Our core audience is 6-14, so everything that we are creating is trying to use our sport and the resources from our sport to help try and make a better outcome for these kids.”
Lee said it’s important for the team to be a strong community partner in Atlanta. With 14 years with the team, Lee considers this position to be his most important. “There’s no better way to build a business than to build a community first,” he said.
When Hawks CEO Steve Koonin took the role in 2014, he made it clear he was invested in the community aspect for the team. “There was a redoubling of that commitment,” Lee said. “We are fortunate to have an opportunity to be in this industry, and the responsibility that we have is to make ourselves the fabric of the Atlanta metro-community, and work in ways that are both important and impactful.”
“It’s both an obligation and a call-to-action,” he added. “We have a chance to build the community.
Lee said that although only one team will win the championship each year, every team has the opportunity to bring that championship-excitement to the community, no matter what. “There is a way in which the community can win a championship every year,” he said.
The Foundation is busy with its work in the three areas of health, wellness, and education. They are working to open up access to public courts, with a goal of cleaning up 25 courts in the next five years. “We want to make sure that every kid, regardless of their ability, has the opportunity to play in a safe and enjoyable environment.”
The Foundation is also investing in training for youth basketball coaches, as one in three coaches are not properly trained in the sport in which they coach. They also host frequent camps and trainings for young players, and offer scholarships for kids who can’t afford the cost. “There should be no income or economic barrier to a child’s ability to grow, learn, and enjoy the sport of basketball,” Lee said.
More information on the Foundation can be found at www.hawks.com/community.