People & Places

Cedar Rapids-Iowa City club promotes cultural awareness through in-home visits and global travel

Mary and Frank Stull are photographed at their home in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The couple have been act
Mary and Frank Stull are photographed at their home in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The couple have been active in the Friendship Force for about thirty years. Their first trip with the group was to Japan. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Mary Stull doesn’t get jealous when friends talk about buying a new car or a new home. But when she hears that someone is planning to travel or has just returned from a trip, she feels a little envy.

“I just want to have different experiences than I would at home. I want to eat different food. I want to see what’s there,” Stull said. “That’s where I spend my energy, my time, and my money.”

Through travel, she fell in love with Belgian chocolates, learned to pace herself during a 10-course dinner in Taiwan and enjoyed walking the parks in Kiev, Ukraine. She’s taken a train trip across Canada with an aunt, attended a conference in Mexico and enjoyed several international trips with her husband, Frank.

What sets Stull’s trips apart from most travelers is she has experienced the world largely through Friendship Force International, a home-stay exchange club.

“If you’re going to dive in and travel, this is the way to do it,” she said. “After you’ve done this, everything is easier.”

More than just sightseeing

The Stulls began traveling about 30 years ago while they were working full-time. They’d take shorter trips a couple of times a year or save vacation time to go on longer excursions every few years.

Mary Stull learned about Friendship Force International through the efforts of former Iowa Gov. Bob Ray. He and wife, Billie, brought the club to Cedar Rapids in the late 1980s. What the Rays described sounded like the experience Stull was looking for: to not just sightsee, but to meet people and learn about cultures around the globe.

Friendship Force connects club members with opportunities to travel and stay with hosts from other clubs. Through the Journeys program, clubs organize trips for their members to another club’s city — foreign or domestic — often inviting other clubs to join. On the average trip, about 20 members travel together but stay with different hosts.

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Through the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City chapter, the Stulls have hosted travelers from all over the United States and the world. They also have taken several trips, staying with club members in their homes as far away as Taiwan.

“It’s very comfortable to travel with other people that you know,” Stull said. “You’re part of a group that you’re very comfortable with. You have day trips (as a group), but you also have your own experiences.”

Hosting visitors

Before a group comes to Eastern Iowa, the local chapter hosts cultural information sessions and training for hosts. Then all it takes is an exchange of emails about food restrictions and interests. That — and an extra bed. Guests don’t expect a private bathroom, Stull said.

Once visitors arrive, “There’s a bit of exploration time where you’ve got to get to know each other,” she said. “They watch our habits, and we watch theirs. We have a lot of conversations over the breakfast table.”

The Stulls have hosted visitors from Japan, Ukraine and Kosovo, plus members from several U.S. chapters.

Before they hosted for the first time, Mary Stull wondered how they’d help visitors fill their time in Cedar Rapids.

“But by the second day, they had way more to do than they could fit in,” she said.

Sports fans are often thrilled to visit the “Field of Dreams” movie site near Dyersville or go to a Jefferson High School football game. There are trips to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library with a discussion about Cedar Rapids’ Czech heritage.

If there’s an interest, and enough time, the Stulls take visitors to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art or the Grant Wood Studio and Visitor Center. Since 2008, visitors sometimes take a small bus tour to learn about the flood’s impact on the city, its residents and neighborhoods.

“We always try to take people to the Mississippi River,” Stull said. “They often know more about it than we do.”

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Because the United States is so large, some visitors have unrealistic expectations about all they’ll be able to do during a week in Cedar Rapids. For example, Chicago is too far away for a quick day trip.

“We had a guest from Siberia who announced to us that he was going to go to the Black Hills, Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone on a long weekend. We told him, ‘That’s not physically possible,’” Stull said.

Hosting was a little trickier before the Stulls retired: Mary would take a day off, then Frank would take a different day off, and other club members would fill in the rest of the week.

“We’d just make it work,” Stull said.

Now retired, the Stulls were planning to visit Kosovo on a Friendship Force trip this year after having earlier hosted some guests from Kosovo, “but that got canceled,” Stull said. “That will be at a later date, I hope.”

The ability to host guests from a certain country and then to visit that same country can be particularly appealing, Stull said. Their first Friendship Force guests were a dental student and English teacher from Japan. When their guests were leaving, Stull told them she’d visit them when she and her husband retired.

“Three years later, our club was matched for a trip to Tokyo,” she said. “I told my husband, ‘Forget the new carpet. We need to go to Japan.’”

Staying with a host family

The in-home stays remind Stull of past visits with their large extended family.

“We’ve always had this experience of home-stays,” she said. “When you visit family, that’s what you do.”

Think Airbnb, but with the host not only sharing their home — for free — but also actively involving guests in their daily lives and community activities.

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Stull said she likes the distinctive opportunities each host provides and the more relaxed, in-depth conversations you can experience when staying in someone’s home.

Home stays can be comfortable for anyone, whether you’re more quiet and reserved or more like Stull’s husband, Frank, who she said can strike up a conversation with people anywhere. Through Friendship Force, it can be easy to quickly build new friendships.

“The connection with people is the real bonus,” she said.

The Stulls often re-connect with former visitors or hosts on subsequent trips. Those relationships also help them relate to what’s happening around the world.

“If you know someone there, you follow what’s happening much closer,” Mary Stull said.

With travel off the table due to the pandemic, the Stulls make do with Friendship Force get-togethers — virtual or in-person — and hope travel will be possible again next year.

Mary Stull’s advice to others: “Be open to what comes up because there are always surprises along the way. Consider that part of the journey,” she said. “That’s a big part of what makes travel interesting and adventurous.”

Friendship Force International

Friendship Force International was started in 1977 by Wayne Smith, of Atlanta, and then-President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

Goals: Promote world peace and understanding through individual friendships. Provide people all over the world with the opportunity to explore new countries and cultures through home-stay exchanges.

Reach: Clubs in 60 countries on six continents that together host between 250 and 300 exchange visits, of one to two weeks, each year.

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Worth noting: Friendship Force International was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for connecting residents of the United States and the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War.

Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Club: Hosts at least two incoming and two outgoing exchange visits annually, as well as membership meetings, group dinners and potlucks. Current membership stands at about 70.

Information: Look for the local chapter on Facebook and on the club’s website, friendshipforcecr-ic.org and thefriendshipforce.org

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