Picture this: one hundred thirty teenagers, aged 15-18, from all over the world. From Greenland, New Zealand, Honduras, Hong Kong, Italy, the USA, the Faroe Islands, etc. all gathered at an agriculturally-oriented boarding school in the middle of rural Upper Austria for a week's introduction to Austrian culture, the German language, and each other.
It's a gathering like no other you can imagine- no drugs, no alcohol, but lots of singing, dancing, being silly, being young, having fun, and recognizing that people from countries you've barely heard of can become close friends within a few hours. I had the opportunity to spend this past week as one of the counselors at the AFS Austria arrival camp and it was a great time as one would expect.
For those who don't know, I myself was an AFS exchange student in Austria, starting ten years ago this month (gulp). Although I only stayed six months in contrast with most students who spend a whole year, it was truly one of the defining times of my life. It gave me fluency in German, the feeling of being at home in the world, my first girlfriend, two of my best friends to this day, and lots of great memories.
AFS, which formerly stood for "American Field Service" but now is just an acronym, was started by former ambulance volunteers of the two world wars who wanted to found an organization to help prevent another war. So the ambulance volunteers decided to set up the world's largest, oldest, and most respected student exchange program, which now has programs in about forty countries and is expanding its offerings in Africa, the Middle East, India, and China.
True to its volunteer origins, AFS is one of the world's largest organizations that works largely on a volunteer basis. Some 10,000 volunteers or so help provide support for the students, organize arrival, mid-stay, and departure camps, and do all sorts of other jobs. I've never been to an AFS meeting or camp where I didn't have a great time- the energy of the kids and volunteers is palpable and contagious. Feeling this energy led me to do things such as the Swedish frog dance, introduce a guy from Greenland to the pasttime of playing catch, yell out "Yeah Polka!", and participate in all sorts of "energizers" which basically involve acting like an idiot while having a great time.
Bottom line: if you're a cynic, if you're looking to renew your faith in humanity, if you want to see a minor miracle in action, become a part of AFS- volunteer, host a student, or if you're in your teens, consider taking part yourself. You and the world will never be the same.