A 63-year-old idea remains as relevant today as in 1956, and perhaps even more important.
The International Thanksgiving Fellowship arose in Paris with the idea that foreign students attending college in America could better understand and appreciate Americans by spending time with families and celebrating Thanksgiving – that most American of holidays.
“We have seen a decline in the students from Chicago,” said Barbara Dick. “We have also seen a decline in host families.”
She said it is possible the current state of world affairs highlighting perceived differences may be a factor in why fewer people in Paris are willing to open their homes to the students for the holiday weekend. Another factor is families in 2019 are much more mobile than they were in 1956 and people don’t always stay home for Thanksgiving.
As for the declining number of students, Dick explained the Thanksgiving Fellowship works closely with the International House at the University of Chicago and much depends on how hard that staff recruits students to take advantage of the opportunity.
This year Paris is slated for 15 students, although the actual number of guests may be higher because some of the graduate students may be accompanied by a spouse or child. Dick is in need of local families and at the time of the interview did not have 15 families committed to hosting a student.
“We try to get as many different countries as we can, but it can be a challenge since so many Chinese come to the Unites States for their education,” said Dick.
Paris is not the only community that does a Thanksgiving Fellowship. The program started here and since then three or four other Illinois communities also participate.
She urged anyone who might have misgivings about hosting a student because of cultural concerns to put such reservations aside. The students, she said, are broadminded and genuinely curious about how Americans live.
“It may be their only chance to stay in an American home,” said Dick.
The responsibility of the host families starts when the guests arrive Wednesday, Nov. 27. The students remain with the host families Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the holiday in the manner the family does. Friday is a day of organized activities for the students such as visiting Shewey’s ceramics business in Paris or shopping at Wal-Mart and Rural King. Some years there is a trip to Arthur to learn about the Amish.
Saturday the host families bring the students to the Paris Square for the Christmas in Paris event, which includes a 4 p.m. Friendship Candle lighting ceremony at Prospect Bank and riding on a float in the illuminated parade. The students return to Chicago on Sunday.
“They love being in the parade,” said Dick.
Funding for the International Thanksgiving Fellowship comes from the United Way, a city grant through the hotel/motel tourism tax and what Dick described as generous private donations. In an effort to cut costs this year, the committee has hired Ball Transportation to get the students from and back to Chicago on a school bus. In years past, a charter coach was used.
Dick said the experience is good for the students and the host families, and creates a positive image for the city.
“Last year we had a young woman from Peru whose aunt participated in a previous Thanksgiving Fellowship,” said Dick. “She said her aunt told her if she had the opportunity to visit Paris with the program to do it.”
The fellowship needs host families and anyone wanting to do so should call Nancy Hansel at 465-4688 by Nov. 12.