Global travel is an incredible experience, but traveling to a foreign country accompanied by 20 locals who happen to be friends, is one of the many gifts of cultural exchange!

Gary Richards is a Sandusky, Ohio resident currently in Turkey, exploring the historic, beautiful and culturally-rich country with the many Turkish friends he met while participating in cultural exchange program as a volunteer “ambassador.”

A few summers ago, a friend asked Gary if he would be willing to participate in a “Friendship Family Program.”  It’s a program established to help international students working and living in the United States acclimate to a new country and culture. Gary was happy to serve as a program “ambassador,” showing foreign students around and introducing them to American customs, traditions, pastimes and attractions.

Gary was immediately paired up with “two very fun students from Turkey.”   They quickly formed a friendship and Gary was introduced to several other international students.  Gary wanted to be a local “big brother,” helping the students adapt to living and working in Northern Ohio.  Life there was very different than their home in Turkey, and having a local guide, mentor and friend made the experience interesting and enjoyable for everyone.

Observing the students learn new interests and participate in new activities was “too much fun” for Gary.   He introduced them to his friends and family, American foods and customs, and showed them interesting places and attractions across the northern part of the state. Gary particularly enjoyed teaching the students how to play American games and local activities like cornhole, miniature golf, trampoline jumping, canoeing and tandem riding.

The experience was as enriching and rewarding for Gary as it was his new Turkish friends.  The fellowship they established has kept them close despite the distance between Sandusky, Ohio and Istanbul, Turkey.  It became the motivator for Gary to plan a trip to Turkey to learn more about his new friends’ country and culture.

While Gary was excited to have his passport stamped for the 37th time, he’s been even more excited about exploring this fabulous country with “20 very special and fun young Turkish friends.”  Gary’s planning to chronicle his travels and has already published a piece in the Norwalk Reflector, sharing his passion for exploring new cultures and countries and encouraging others to get out see more of the world.

“It is going to be extremely fun, interesting and exciting traveling around Turkey with my Turkish friends, meeting their friends and families and visiting exotic cities such as Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city at 15 million people and Ankara, Turkey’s capital and second largest city.”

For Gary and anyone who has participated in a cultural exchange program or traveled to another part of the world, the experience is life-changing.  Our hope is that many more Americans like Gary will open their hearts and minds, welcoming foreign visitors, widening their sphere of friends and creating incredible connections with people from all over the world.