Thirty years ago Katie Spindell, a self-employed wife and mother of two, read an article on the San Diego Diplomacy Council, asking for volunteers to host dinners and accompany exchange participants to local meetings while in the United States on the International Visitor Leadership Program (then the International Visitor Program).
“I thought the opportunity sounded amazing,” says Katie. “Especially as a way for my two small children to become familiar with different cultures and with people of different ethnicities. So I volunteered.”
Katie’s first experience included cooking a home hospitality dinner for a public affairs official who worked for a foreign prime minister. She was terrified she wouldn’t know how to interact with such an important guest. But that evening, after leaving her guest in the family room to bring the meal together, she heard great laughter. Katie returned to find her guest rolling around the floor of the family room, in his suit, with her three year old. Resuming his composure, he apologized to Katie, explaining he was homesick for his own daughter and wanted to play. At that moment, Katie realized interacting with exchange participants has little to do with titles or the positions they hold.
After serving as a volunteer host for the San Diego Diplomacy Council for close to 20 years, Katie and her family relocated to Springfield, Illinois—a decision entirely based on the cities involvement with the International Visitors Leadership Program. Soon after her arrival, the mayor appointed Katie as one of the commissioners of the city-sponsored Springfield Commission on International Visitors and presented her with a Key to the City.
Participating as a host for IVLP has been rewarding for Katie. Two years after her first hosting experience, Katie had an eye opening experience when she accompanied a group of government officials from a communist country. During the entire visit the men maintained a disciplined demeanor. At the end, one member of the group told Katie that prior to their visit, he had a very low opinion of Americans, but her hospitality changed his perceptions.
“It was then that I fully realized the importance of this program,” says Katie. “As we host these individuals, we need to always keep in mind that we are not just volunteers but true ‘citizen diplomats’ with the rare opportunity to demonstrate the remarkable essence of our country and who its citizens really are. My hope is to remain involved with the IVLP program until I can no longer do so, as it has – and continues to be – an extraordinary gift in my life.”