Still extending the hand of friendship 50 years on

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It started out as an ambitious idea by a group of youth fellowship teenagers at a Glenrothes church, as a way of making activities more interesting.

Little did they know that 50 years on, that idea would still be bringing happiness and friendship to countless young people across the globe.

Back in the autumn of 1964, young members of the St Margaret’s Church congregation hit on an idea of a youth exchange but had no plan to make it a reality.

But within weeks, thanks to a chance meeting between Rev Wallace Shaw, minister of the Glenrothes church at that time, and his opposite number from a church in Kerney, New Jersey, an invite had made its way to those new town youngsters, and with it the beginning of a legacy that has spanned three generations.

The plan was a simple one, if the Glenrothes group could arrange their return flight (at a cost of £60), all expenses of living in America during a three week visit would be taken care of.

Three fellowship youngsters - Ian Sloan (19), Alex Patterson (18) and Douglas Brodie (16) - with the help of some creative fund raising , managed to meet the cost ... and the rest, they say, is history as Operation Friendship was born.

“It was the chance of a lifetime for anyone, not just a teenager, to be able to go to America as it was just so far away,” remembers Ian, now a Glenrothes councillor, some five decades on.

“We were seen as ambassadors for Glenrothes and for Scotland and I must say we were certainly treated as such.”

The visit, which also included a jaunt to Palmer Massachusetts, proved a huge success, so much so that on their return Ian and his colleagues got straight to work planning to reciprocate the welcome for those about to come to Fife.

“We were ready to welcome them here but I must admit I was a little bit shocked when 33 young people got off the plane,” laughed Ian.

But the St Margaret’s parishioners duly obliged and lifelong friendships were forged.

By 1969 Ian had become assistant chairman of the Scottish movement and headed a group of 150 on a return trip stateside.

Two years later and Ian was receiving the VIP treatment from one of the worlds biggest airlines- PanAm - when he chartered a jet to take 171 young people from all over Scotland and Ireland to the US.

“I remember signing the contract to PanAm for $10,484 which was an eye-watering amount in 1971, and I was still only a teenager,” remembers Ian.

As word of the success of Operation Friendship grew both at home and abroad the idea, grew into a fully fledged international youth movement which at its peak included 13 nations including the likes of Sweden, the Netherlands,the Czech republic, Estonia, Hungary and the Ukraine and involving many thousands of young people forging links across the world.

Being able to bring the 35th anniversary of the movement back to its spiritual home of Glenrothes in then millennium year is one of his proudest achievements and a time that Ian looks back on fondly.

“That was a great honour to have delegates from 13 countries visit the town where the idea originated 35 years earlier, very special indeed,” said Ian.

In recent times Scotland’s involvement has waned, but elsewhere in the world Operation Friendship continues to thrive.

And Ian believes the movement has the potential to grow once more in its native country. With a staggering mass of original memorabilia, photographs and documentation relating to his involvement in the organisation, Ian is also hopeful it can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

“I’d like to think we’ve helped break down a few cultural barriers and spread a little bit of happiness around the world, it certainly brought much to me,” Ian smiled.

Ian Sloan

Ian Sloan