Greendale — Would you let a complete stranger stay in your home for nearly a week or would you stay in theirs? What possible reason could there be to do such a thing?

If you talk with members of the local Friendship Force organization, they'd tell you there are countless reasons and the benefits far outweigh any concerns.

Learning about other cultures, getting to know the people (not just the places), and teaching others first hand about your own area and background are just a few of the benefits participants spoke of regarding their experience with Friendship Force.

The local group, Friendship Force of Greater Milwaukee, is a part of Friendship Force International.  The official website states the organization has volunteers on the ground in 63 countries who "travel or host in the name of global friendship." The organization was founded in 1977 when it was introduced to President Jimmy Carter, who supported the proposal and has since brought together millions of people, according to the website.

Canadian visit

Last October, a group of 20 Canadians from Montreal, Quebec, came to Greendale. Some of them had never been to the United States before. The night they arrived, everyone met at Greendale Community Church, 6015 Clover Lane, to go over the agenda for the week-long visit.

Those who came were treated to a number of local experiences, including the Chinese Lanterns Festival at Boerner Botanical Gardens ion Hales Corners, a trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World downtown, a brewery tour of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, a visit to the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, a tour of Horicon Marsh, a trip to Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, and a pie and ice cream farewell stop.

The group also stopped by both the high school and middle school in Greendale to visit the French classes – appropriate, since many from Montreal speak French as their primary language.

Denise Bourdeau, the head of the visiting group from Montreal, said "the ambassadors of Friendship Force of Montreal are very happy with their stay in Milwaukee."  She said everyone enjoyed the "beautiful Wisconsin countryside." She commented on the experiences in the brewery, Horicon Marsh and the schools, but said the best experience was the people.

"Over and above all these experiences and discoveries we will remember the warmth and the hospitality of our new Milwaukee friends," Bourdeau said. "Thanks to everybody for sharing your time and your friendship with us."

Local participants

Joanne Richards, a Greendale resident, said when you spend a week with someone you really get to know them. This, among many other reasons, is why Richards participates in the Friendship Force program.

She got involved about a year ago with a trip to Costa Rica. This time, she was a host.

"We're trying to enrich everyone's lives," Richards said. "You learn about other cultures and the more you learn about them, the more you respect them."

Cris Reischl – who is also from Greendale, went on the Costa Rica trip and is friends with Richards – agreed more contact and understanding was needed among people with different cultures and backgrounds.

"If you get to be friends with somebody, you're much less likely to fight with them," Reischl said.

Initially after joining, Reischl said she was a bit worried about staying with a stranger or having them stay with her.  But, eventually, she realized those who were participating were just interested in witnessing and learning about other cultures.

While in Costa Rica, the two women visited volcanoes and learned to dance, among other activities.

"You see things you don't normally get to see," Reischl said. "It gives you a broader viewpoint, (and) lets you see different ways of doing things."

Both women said the home host usually does most of the transportation as well as plans for someone else to be home with their guest if they have to leave for some reason.

Getting involved

Friendship Force offers many ways to get involved other than home-hosting, Richards said, adding that they're always looking for new members.  Those interested in trips can stay local or travel internationally. Richards said many members have made multiple trips.

"Some of the ladies in our group have traveled the world," she said.

Friendship Force International is a non-profit organization supported by membership, exchange fees, donations, and foundation grants.

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