While the group splits up at night to stay in different homes around a given city, members explore their destinations together during the day. Friendship Force of Baton Rouge members are pictured here in Belgium in 2017. Photos courtesy Trudy Ivy.

Giving back: Friendship Force of Baton Rouge

Departing Brazil after a two-week trip in October of 2019, Trudy Ivy and her fellow Friendship Force of Baton Rouge members took home plenty of memories and souvenirs, but they also left behind a little piece of themselves. While in São Paulo, the group planted a tree with the help of the Friendship Force club in the city of Piracicaba. A simple gesture, the eco-friendly gift—and the act of planting it together—signified the union between the two organizations and their cities. Back in Baton Rouge, a “Friendship Forest” filled with trees planted alongside visiting clubs grows in Greenwood Community Park as a reminder of past visitors and the connection they share.

“Our goal is to promote peace, and the best way to do that is to learn about other cultures,” explains Ivy, who has been a member of the local Friendship Force organization for eight years and currently serves as vice president. “You have to get out and meet the people. You never really know someone until you sit at their own dinner table.”

Many Friendship Force chapters set up “Friendship Forests” for members from other chapters to contribute to during visits. The Baton Rouge chapter is pictured here planting a tree in Piracicaba, São Paulo, Brazil.

And that’s exactly what Friendship Force of Baton Rouge members—as well as all of the other worldwide chapters of Friendship Force International—do each year. The local group partners with one domestic and one international club each year for an exchange program. Instead of hotels, Friendship Force members stay in the homes of club members from that city, enjoying homemade meals and getting a unique view of the city through the eyes of natives.

“Our hosts act as our guides,” says Ivy of the trips to places from Belgium to Canada to Colombia. “They welcome you at the airport and spend their week introducing you to the best things to see and do in that city. They also make sure you have everything you need. It’s like having a mother with you on the trip.”

Baton Rouge members’ adventures don’t end after they return home. Members of the clubs that previously hosted become guests in the Capital City, as local members welcome them into their homes and introduce them to everything from alligators to plantation homes to Cajun dancers.

“Who better to show you Baton Rouge than me,” says Ivy with a laugh, noting that she wakes her guests with Louisiana staples like beignets. “Hosting actually becomes a staycation for us. We go to all different places around Louisiana and get to see our everyday surroundings in a new way. It’s pretty fun.”

When they aren’t traveling or hosting, the 50 members of the local chapter dedicate their time to bettering the city that they show off to guests far and wide. The group hosts a Christmas in July event for the Louisiana War Veterans Home in Jackson in addition to volunteering with philanthropic organizations like Louisiana Public Broadcasting and Cancer Services.

“We don’t only travel,” says Ivy. “Philanthropy is important to us, and we have been able to help promote international understanding through work with places like LPB. We also serve on Mayor Broome’s International Relations Committee.”

Friendship Force members offer a unique perspective because of the way they choose to travel and the goals they have when doing so. With the club made up primarily of retirees, they take the time to learn about the history, landmarks and people before they travel. In addition, they don’t hide away in luxury resorts. Rather, they embrace the authenticity that comes with staying in a local person’s home, including language barriers and amenity differences.

“You see the different ways people live all over the world,” remarks Ivy, noting that not everywhere indulges the need for air conditioning. “We create relationships that remain after we finish a trip. We meet up with people from past stays and reach out to them for travel advice.”

And while COVID-19 has drastically changed the group’s plans for this and likely the coming year, Ivy and the rest of the club aren’t ready to give up on travel. For them, a world all ravaged by the same invisible enemy is just another example of how connected we are, despite the differences on the surface. They want to ensure that this virus brings us closer together, igniting a new curiosity in the cultures around us, regardless of our ability to travel there physically.

“The virus has really affected us and we don’t know when and how to plan anymore,” explains Ivy. “But I know that we will be planning again and it will be better than ever.”