CITIZEN DIPLOMACY ALIVE AND WELL – AT HOME AND IN OUR NATION’S CAPITAL

By Billie Fouts, VP Marketing & Development

A year ago next month I boarded a plane bound for Washington, D.C. to rendezvous with a top International Center volunteer, Betty Bledsoe, along with 10 of her 11 adopted children. The occasion: They, not just SHE, were to be presented with the Lorinne Emery Volunteer of the Year award from Global Ties U.S. Global Ties U.S. is the organization under the purview of the U.S. Department of State that administers the nation’s premiere citizen diplomacy program for visits to the U.S. by delegations of emerging leaders from around the world.

The Award was being presented to Betty and her family (more on them in a moment) in conjunction with Global Ties U.S.’s Discover Diplomacy Weekend which is strategically timed to coincide with Cultural Tourism DC’s Passport DC: Around the World Embassy Tour and Foreign Affairs Day. The special program offers participants a unique opportunity to explore the diplomatic world in our nation’s capital – from the U.S. Congress, the White House, and the Department of State, to the 176 countries that have embassies in the city. The event also celebrates all volunteers who donate their time, talent, and treasures to make international exchange a key tool for building global ties. This year’s event will be May 1 – 3.

But back to The International Center’s “uber volunteer”, Betty Bledsoe. When was the last time you traveled to a foreign country as a member of a visiting delegation, were invited to dine in the home of a local family, and were met at the door and served dinner by 11 special needs children who had thoroughly researched your country of origin prior to your arrival? The answer, of course, is “never”!

betty bledsoe volunteer
Betty Bledsoe and her family from Indianapolis,
2014 recipients of a national citizen diplomacy volunteerism award

The “delegations” referred to in this case are visits to America by emerging international leaders invited by embassies around the world as part of a program called the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The International Center serves as the local program agency for the state of Indiana and provides all planning, connection and onsite management of itineraries associated with these visits to Indiana. The visits generally include 2-3 days of professional appointments with business, government, education and civic sector leaders who are subject matter experts in the visitors’ areas of interest (which vary by group and by region of the world).

A mainstay of these visits to Indiana is having dinner in the home of a community volunteer so that a slice of American family life can be experienced. Betty Bledsoe as one of these volunteers has opened up her home to these visitors up to a dozen times each year so that her children, who will likely never have the opportunity for international travel, can experience the world from their dining room. Betty has welcomed more than 40 groups of international visitors into her home during her multi-year relationship with The International Center. As a result, her children have met and conversed with people from literally dozens of countries, adding a richness to their cultural education that might otherwise be impossible to acquire without extensive world travel.

The international visitors themselves have used only superlatives when describing their view of American life as experienced in the home of Betty Bledsoe and her children.
“It is not an understatement to say that the three visitors lucky enough to be invited to Ms. Bledsoe’s home may have been changed forever . . . and the humble, but impossibly gracious reception she reserved for the delegation were a true inspiration,” said one group leader.

“Meeting with Betty Bledsoe and her 11 special needs children was the most powerful, life changing experience I’ve had since I came to the U.S.” said another.
And yet another, a visitor from Pakistan, summed up the significance of the experience (to himself, to Indianapolis and to the image of America) as follows: “…this kind of commitment and generosity is what makes America a great country.”

home hospitality dinner
Slice of a diplomatic life: A member of Japanese Parliament (on red trike)
the evening he visited Bledsoe family for his IVLP “Home Hospitality” dinner

Citizen diplomacy is indeed thriving in Indiana. It certainly appeals to the Bledsoes. Does it appeal to you? I can assure you from personal experience that Washington D.C. is a beautiful and welcoming destination the first week in May. Click here to learn more about the Global Ties U.S. Discover Diplomacy Weekend. And click here to visit The Center’s website to learn more about how you can become a citizen diplomat as an IVLP volunteer.