Ever since I can remember, telling stories has been my passion. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. In college, I worked for my hometown’s daily newspaper, wrote for an entertainment publication and wrote articles for my college newspaper.
From there I worked for more than a decade in the news business as a multi-media reporter and editor, telling varied stories ranging from interviews with musicians coming to the greater Philadelphia area to slice-of-life people profiles, community events, municipal government and school-related news.
As a public relations professional, I have the opportunity to tell my clients’ stories, but generally not to the same extent as I did as a reporter. Do I miss my reporting days? Not really.
What I do miss is interviewing people, learning about them and their histories and transforming spiral-bound notebooks filled with scrawled text into a polished article. I miss digging beyond the who, what, where, when, why and how to find out what really makes someone tick.
Recently, I began collaborating on a communications project. In the process, one of the point people involved in the
project asked for my help telling his story as it relates to a nonprofit organization near and dear to his heart. I sat with him and his wife and interviewed them about how their volunteerism with Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia has positively impacted their lives. What followed, through a series of interviews with the couple’s children, friends and my writing of a nearly 3,000-word article, was truly a labor of love.
Far too often nonprofit organizations are the unsung heroes. Volunteers and board members work tirelessly toward a cause, rarely stopping to reflect on milestones, capture a snapshot of important history or tell the stories of its benefactors, beneficiaries and volunteers.
I am proud to have been able to tell Tom and Kathy Jennings’ story through not only a successful public relations campaign, which continues to generate considerable media coverage, but also the article I penned for posterity. I share the Jennings’ article in hopes that it will inspire other nonprofit organizations to tell their stories too.
Would you like to know more about how Katalinas Communications can help tell your nonprofit organization’s story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-519-8833.
Tom and Kathy Jennings: Lifelong Diplomats
Tom Jennings set out to brush up on his Russian language. In doing so, he and his wife, Kathy, opened the door to a 20-year mission of peace and diplomacy. Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia will honor the couple as 2017 Citizen Diplomats of the Year during the Citizens Soiree in June.
Through their volunteerism with Citizen Diplomacy and the U.S. State Department’s and City of Philadelphia’s diplomatic exchange programs, the Bucks County couple and their three children welcomed more than 30 international guests into their home and dozens more to the office for meals, discussion and shared community. The common ground with all the international leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, public officials, judges, engineers and others who stayed with the Jennings family is that they were working to affect positive change in their countries and abroad.
The hosts, who relocated to Bucks County from Massachusetts in 1995, owed their guests a place to sleep and a cup of coffee in the morning.
Instead, the family took guests to New York City, to local sporting events, to churches, on shopping trips, flipped through family photo albums and shared beloved cuisine from their homelands.
The first visitors, Igor and Oleg, from Orenburg, Russia, stayed with the family in November 1998, just in time for Thanksgiving.
“They loved watching football and all the commercials,” Kathy recalled, noting that “football foods,” including chicken wings, were popular. “They just loved sitting here, having a beer and shooting the breeze with Tom.”
Many of the guests brought dried fish or caviar, considered delicacies in their native countries. The new tastes helped to expand their palates.
“I was 12. I didn’t really appreciate caviar,” the Jennings’ middle child, Patrick, recalled. “I found out growing up there’s not much I don’t like.”
Guests often enjoyed preparing traditional meals for the family to taste.
“You weren’t familiar with these things that would come out of the oven,” Kathy said. “It was sort of fun. I like to try different things. It was easy for me … For (Tom), it was a little more difficult.”
At one guest’s insistence, on a “follow up” trip to Azerbaijan, Tom, unbeknownst to him, tried sheep testicles, which he likened to scallops.
“I would eat shoe leather to be polite now,” he said. “There was a time when I was very fussy about things.”
Some of the dishes included pelmeni stuffed with chicken or beef and onions; French meat, which consisted of pork layered with onions and cheese, covered with mayonnaise and baked in the oven.
“When it was done, it was breathing,” Kathy said. “It was not what my kids were used to.”
A woman from Siberia made hors d’oeuvres with crackers that she fried in oil, rubbed in garlic and topped with a slice of hard-boiled egg and pickle.
As the host, Kathy wanted to provide cooked meals for her guests. Knowing what to make was tricky at first.
“In the beginning, it was sort of like you didn’t know what to give them or feed them,” she says. “I would cook up eggs, put out some fruit, put out some bagels.”
Some meals cut through all language and cultural barriers.
“You can’t go wrong with continental breakfast,” Tom added.
The Jennings also learned that the Russian tradition is to drink vodka at every meal.
“It was so smooth,” he said. “I understood why.” Years later when a guest, the chair of the Buddhist community in Siberia brought a bottle of vodka for a gift at a christening. Tom said he “was envious of the child.”
Sharing American traditions
In addition to sampling each other’s cuisine, guests would set aside time to sight see – and shop.
“All of the guests like American shopping,” Tom said.
More specifically, “everybody loves a bargain,” according to Kathy.
Trips to the Statue of Freedom – as Russian visitors often called the Statue of Liberty – were almost always on guests’ itineraries. These were always very emotional moments for the guests and for Tom.
“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 great respect and reverence for the symbols of our democracy.”
Patrick remembers a genuine sincerity and happiness that radiated from the family’s first guests, Igor and Oleg.
“They had a great spirit about them. It was kind of infectious in the house. Like a spark,” Patrick said. “Things we would take for granted, they’d get excited about, little things like kitchen appliances, shopping. It seemed like everyday life was just easier for us based on their attitudes and enthusiasm.”
Modern conveniences like pain relievers, allergy medicines and aloe for sunburn were popular with visitors as well.
Cultural differences were sometimes not celebrated as readily or as easily as they were in the Jennings household. In the summer of 2001, Tom and Kathy recalled some uncomfortable visits to the community pool with Sveta and Marina, two young women entrepreneurs from the Kemerovo region of Siberia.
“Sveta takes off her clothes and she’s wearing a thong bathing suit. There were grandparents there with their grandkids,” Kathy said, recalling the stares and looks of shock. “It’s spreading like wildfire. The adolescent boys were following her like a school of fish. It was like watching a movie.’”
Looking back, Tom and Kathy laugh at the memory. At the time, they were concerned about Sveta feeling unwelcome or embarrassed. Turns out they had nothing to worry about.
“I don’t think she knew and if she did it wouldn’t have bothered her,” Tom said.
Choosing to be a lifelong diplomat and striving toward peace one handshake at a time manifested itself when Tom figured out that he was not going to be president of the United States or Pope.
“It was an opportunity to do what an ordinary citizen can do,” he said. “To leave them with a better impression our country than they had before. They got to see us and experience our country as we are.”
Over the years, visitors had believed that all Americans carried guns and that everyone wore cowboy hats and listened to country music.
“The people were happy to have misconceptions about the United States cleared up,” Tom said.
For guests who live under the threat of violence, the feeling of safety was a welcome sign.
A journalist from Ukraine had been living in a small apartment with her young child and father-in-law following her husband’s murder. As she was heading home at the end of her program, she shared in a debriefing that the sense of security walking down our streets was her favorite aspect of the trip.
The Jennings’ youngest daughter, Charlotte, was 11 years old when Igor and Oleg arrived from Orenburg, Russia. She gave up her bedroom for the guests and bunked with her sister, Brigid.
“I’m very curious about people and different cultures,” said Charlotte, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, whose fieldwork has taken her to Papua New Guinea, China, Australia and Costa Rica. “I grew up in a pretty normal white middle-class town that, in a lot of ways, was very boring for me. I needed a bigger world. We couldn’t move, but it was like the world came to us.”
Tracy Spurgeon, a paralegal who Tom has worked with and known for more than 20 years, admired Tom and Kathy’s “great faith.”
“They’re very selfless people,” she said. “They would give the shirt off their back for anybody. I don’t think they thought twice about doing this and opening their home to strangers.”
“Just sharing his home and his community with these people I think is huge,” Spurgeon continued. “My kids might freak out if we brought strangers into the home for two weeks.”
The Jennings’ children adapted well.
Brigid, who studied anthropology, learned the importance of an open mind from her parents’ positive influence.
“It made me more understanding of people and more tolerant of different views,” she said. “It made me appreciate the importance of diversity but also how much alike we all are. We learned so much about ourselves from our guests.”
“We all want the same things for our children. We all want good lives and jobs and homes and security,” she said. “We want to be able to be free, to think and do what you need to do. If more people open themselves up to that, there would be a lot less strife and war.”
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter apparently understood the importance of Citizen Diplomacy and the goal for peace, one handshake at a time when he nominated the network of 95 Councils and more than 100,000 citizen diplomats for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.
“It’s the closest I’ll ever get to that prize,” quipped Tom, who received the key to the city of Tel Aviv after taking the Deputy Mayor and Chief Engineer to GROWS landfill in Bucks County to observe operations. Citizen Diplomacy organized Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s trade mission to Israel some years later. “That is a very important relationship to Citizen Diplomacy and, of course, to our nation.”
Growing up, the Jennings’ children recalled hearing their father ask, fairly regularly, “what did you do for world peace today?”
In addition to volunteering with Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia for the last 20 years, serving on the nonprofit organization’s board since 2003 and welcoming dozens of strangers into his home, Tom, a partner with the law firm Curtin & Heefner LLP, served as peacemaker during bouts of sibling rivalry in the family’s Lower Makefield home.
“They would let us know ‘You’re all different but you’re all one family. You’re all you have. Don’t get hung up on small stuff,’” Patrick said. ‘“So, learn to get along. Now.’”
Like a family unit, Citizen Diplomacy International has been the connector between international visitors and Americans since 1954. The nonprofit organization reinforces global security and 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 for the organization, coined Citizen Diplomats, receive and initiate international exchanges with established and emerging leaders from over 130 countries each year – last year welcoming 1,219 international visitors as guests of our government. Participants travel to the U.S. where they meet their professional counterparts and experience American life. They have informal dinners with families in homes and attend local cultural events. Their programs allow visitors to see the country first-hand so they can form their own opinions of the U.S., its policies, and its people.
Citizen Diplomacy President and CEO, Siobhan Lyons recalled, “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.” Americans share best practices in human and civil rights, democracy, elections, STEM education and entrepreneurship.
Past visitors include F.W. de Klerk, Hamid Karzai, Willie Brandt, Nicolas Sarkozy and close to 300 others who later became heads of government.
One of the Jennings’ visitors was a man from Kyrgyzstan who had worked as a medical doctor. Following the fall of the Soviet system and the economic collapse, he could no longer make a living as a physician. Forced to leave his chosen profession, he began baking hamburger rolls for the United States military base in his region. During his time with the Jennings family, he visited the TastyKake baking facility in Philadelphia. “He also took great pleasure in helping us with yard work, really looked forward to it as do we.”
Another guest heard talk radio programs while visiting the U.S. and went back to Russia to start a similar program. Talk radio was barely existent at the time in her country.
“People weren’t used to being able to speak their minds,” Kathy said.
Bob Harvie, a long-time Falls Township Supervisor, spent the 2016 Primary Election at a polling place giving a dozen international visitors from Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East a chance to “see democracy in action.” Several took copious notes and planned to go back and talk about how elections could work in their country, according to Harvie.
The Primary Election meeting was arranged by Tom Jennings, whom Harvie had known for several years before assuming his role on the Board of Supervisors in 2004. Tom had served as Waste Management’s general counsel and was the “face of Waste Management” to Harvie, regularly sharing news with Falls elected officials related to the locally operated solid waste facilities.
In more recent years, Harvie, a high school social studies teacher, received a bit of a formal introduction to Citizen Diplomacy from Tom.
“I honestly had thought about getting more involved,” Harvie said. “Tom really believes in the power of America and the symbol, very much in the Kennedy role of ‘it’s not what your country can do for you, it’s what you can do for your country.’”
Tom also enlisted help from Spurgeon and her husband, who works as an engineer, in showing some international visitors around his office.
“During the day, they’re going to businesses and learning how we do things here in the United States,” Spurgeon said. “On the evenings and weekends, Kathy is cooking for them and taking them to the community pool, shopping and many other places.”
In addition to hosting guests, Tom stays involved with Citizen Diplomacy’s wide range of events and board leadership.
This spring, Tom joined Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in hosting a photography opening for Citizen Diplomacy’s Sister Cities program featuring photography from Philadelphia and its sister city, Tianjin, China. In late May, he is planning travel to Beijing and Tianjin.
With all three of the Jennings children grown and out on their own, Tom, Kathy and their beagle/basset mix, Oliver Wendell Hound, hosted their most recent international guest in the fall.
Looking back on two decades, more than 36 house guests and nearly 15 years of service on the Citizen Diplomacy board of directors, Tom said he and Kathy may continue to welcome international visitors into their home. “It’s more important than ever.”
“I hope that there will be many new volunteers,” he said. “You really should find somebody who’s as young as we were when we started.”
Harvie, who enjoyed explaining the election process, said hosting guests “kind of crossed my mind” and that it’s “definitely something I’m interested in.”
For Charlotte, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Her parents’ influence shaped her interactions with natives in the countries she visited as part of her research.
“Relating to other people can be very healing. The world needs that,” Charlotte said. “I don’t want to just be a citizen of the United States. I’d really like to be a citizen of the world.”
While other scientists were intent in doing their work and not talking to or interacting with the natives, Charlotte took the approach of “what’s mine is yours.” She cooked and shared meals with people and tried to get to know them.
“There’s a lot of beauty when you’re sitting across from people sharing a meal,” she said. “They have a completely different upbringing and lifestyle, but you can still find this commonality in all humans. It really brings me a sense of peace, helping people to connect in a human-to-human level.”
A Ph.D. candidate, Charlotte hopes to create more equitable conservation policies and is interested in ethnobiology, or the scientific study of the way living things are treated or used by different human cultures.
“I’m really privileged,” Charlotte said. “I should give back. Ultimately, I want to be at peace with myself. I’ve got everything I need.”
She plans to work more with the indigenous people in Papua New Guinea to give them a voice and access to scientific knowledge.
Reacquainting herself with Citizen Diplomacy International is also a priority.
“It’s never too late. In any given moment, you can change your stance on things,” she said. “It starts with simple steps and a direction of what you really believe in.”
Part of the vetting process in selecting Americans to host international guests is determining if “you have the right attitude,” Tom said. “Do you have the right mindset and world view? Will you welcome strangers and send home friends? Can you live up to our motto: Make friends. Make contacts. Make peace.”
What have you done for world peace today?
To learn more about how Katalinas Communications can help share your nonprofit organization’s story, email Theresa@Katalinascommunications@gmail.com.