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Friendships form through area visit

Nora Ovares of Costa Rica and Carolyn Owens of Palm Harbor met just last week, but you wouldn't know it.

"I feel like we're sisters," Mrs. Owens said.

"I feel so close to the people here, like I have known them for years," Mrs. Ovares said.

It was no miracle that brought these two women together from cities about 1,200 miles apart. In fact, their experience has been shared by more than 1-million people in the last 15 years.

The group of 37 Costa Ricans that included Mrs. Ovares was another mission of the Friendship Force, a worldwide organization formed in 1977 by then President Jimmy Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and Wayne Smith. The idea was to improve international relations by starting international friendships. The group's motto is "a world of friends will be a world of peace."

The ambassadors from Costa Rica range from small children to senior citizens. Their week here has included a welcome reception at Schiller International University in Dunedin and trips to Busch Gardens, Walt Disney World, the Florida State Fair, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and a number of local restaurants, museums, parks and shopping malls. They spent the previous week with host families in West Palm Beach.

"It has been wonderful," said Mrs. Ovares, 67, a reporter for a women's magazine in San Jose. "I have learned so many things."

"We have so much in common," said Mrs. Owens, 69, a property appraiser. "It's uncanny."

Members of the Friendship Force say that their method of travel is best because both the ambassadors and the hosts get to know the people and the customs of different countries.

"You can go anyplace in the world and stay in a Holiday Inn, but you don't get to know the people," said Jean Ainsley of Madeira Beach, who served with her husband as hosts for a Costa Rican couple. "Costa Rica will never again be just a little spot on the map to me."

The Florida Suncoast chapter of the Friendship Force has 167 members who share a passion for travel. Members of the local chapter have visited Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Russia and many European countries.

They have welcomed guests from Germany, England, Colombia, Russia, Japan and Australia. The Friendship Force has 10 chapters in Florida and more than 250 in the United States, said Dave Grimm of Palm Harbor, publicity chairman for the local chapter.

The group is planning trips to Newcastle, England in June and to Australia in September. Ambassadors will be arriving here from Germany later this year, Grimm said.

Tonight a farewell dinner is planned for the ambassadors at El Capitan Restaurant in Clearwater. They will start their journey back to Costa Rica at 6 a.m. Sunday.

Want to learn more?

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the Friendship Force can call Florida Suncoast chapter president Irwin Dawley at 726-0055.