The peacemakers

Bucks County couple to be named “Citizen Diplomats of the Year.”

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

A little kindness can go a long way. That’s why Lower Makefield couple Tom and Kathy Jennings are being honored for their 20 years of service to Citizen Diplomacy International, during which they hosted more than 36 international visitors in their Bucks County home to help strengthen peaceful relations between countries.

In unity: Tom and Kathy Jennings of Lower Makefield will be honored as 2017 Citizen Diplomats of the Year on June 15 at the National Museum of American Jewish History. They are being honored for their 20 years of service to Citizen Diplomacy International. PHOTO: Theresa Katalinas

Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization with one mission — to connect international guests such as leaders, entrepreneurs and public officials who are working to implement change in their countries with Americans who are knowledgeable about the guests’ areas of interest. International guests are able to see our country firsthand from those who know it best and leave with an informed opinion.

The Jennings joined the organization in 1998 and have hosted guests of various countries, all of whom possessed a drive to effect positive change in the world. While Citizen Diplomacy only requires members to give guests a place to sleep and a cup of coffee in the morning, Tom and Kathy went above and beyond in making each visitor feel part of the family.

Their first guests were Igor Voronin and Oleg Efimenko from Orenburg, Russia, who stayed with the Jennings during the Thanksgiving season in 1998.

“They loved watching football and all the commercials,” Kathy said. “They loved sitting here, having a beer and shooting the breeze with Tom.”

Many guests brought and prepared food from their home countries, including dried fish and caviar. The Jennings were able to expand their palates while their children became fearless in trying new foods. Kathy, in true host fashion, provided home-cooked meals, though it was a challenge to figure out what her guests would like. After some trial and error, she quickly learned a continental breakfast never fails, and Russians appreciate a nice glass of vodka with every meal.

In addition to cooking, the Jennings took their guests sightseeing and shopping to give them a sense of a typical day in America. The attraction that fascinated guests the most was the Statue of Liberty.

“They really liked being in the middle of people in a safe area,” Tom said. “They loved hearing different languages. They got to see America as it really is. They had such a great respect and reverence for the symbols of our democracy.”

It’s easy and all too common for countries to have stereotypical views of each other because of what is portrayed in movies and the media. The Jennings were able to clear up misconceptions about America and give their guests a sense of safety here, especially those who live under the threat of violence back home.

“It was an opportunity to do what an ordinary citizen can do,” Tom said. “To leave them with a better impression of our country than they had before they arrived.”

In addition to giving their international guests a positive outlook on America, the Jennings saw these visits as teachable opportunities for their children, Brigid, Patrick and Charlotte, to learn about the world that exists outside of their township.

“It made us more open-minded, more accepting to other cultures and ideas,” Patrick said. “It kind of broke us out of a bubble of North American middle-class childhood.”

Citizen Diplomacy International has been the bridge between international visitors and Americans since 1954. The organization reinforces global peace by serving as the official administrator of the Philadelphia Sister Cities Program and host for the U.S. Department of State’s highest exchange, the International Visitor Leadership Program. Volunteers engage with leaders from more than 130 countries each year, and welcomed 1,219 international visitors as guests of our government last year.

“When I ask our international visitors what strikes them most about the United States, the answer is always the same — the kindness and generosity of the people they meet here,” said Citizen Diplomacy President and CEO Siobhan Lyons.

After two decades and more than 36 guests, Tom and Kathy will continue to welcome international visitors into their home.

“It’s more important than ever,” he said. ••

If you go…

Tom and Kathy Jennings will be honored as 2017 Citizen Diplomats of the Year on June 15 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia during Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia’s Citizens Soiree.

The fundraising event will be from 5:30–9:30 p.m. and includes food, cocktails, music, prize drawings and networking.

Tickets and sponsorships are available at cdiphila.org/soiree. For more information on Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia, visitcdiphila.org.