The WWII ambulance drivers who went on to found the AFS, paving the way for foreign exchange programs everywhere
It all begins somewhere. Some spark of divinity arrives even if you didn’t realize you were searching for it. I have always been a seeker – always a storyteller. I’m fascinated by other cultures and the universal passions that connect us as human beings.
For most of my early life my storytelling was conveyed through acting. After graduation from New York University (NYU), I spent nearly a decade trying to get work, but jobs were few and far between. My acting career was going nowhere and I was miserable. It was the year 2000 and my husband and I were planning a vacation to Kenya. Unbeknownst to me, everything was about to change.
Shortly before we left I had breakfast with my friend Kathryn, who told me about a fascinating panel she had seen at The New York Theater Workshop. The panel was comprised of a group of performance artists from all over the world who were making a difference through the expression of their art. She was particularly struck by a woman from Kenya named Anne Wanjugu. Anne had started a performing arts orphanage in Nairobi as a means to rehabilitate street children. On learning of my trip, Kathryn asked me to visit the orphanage and to make a donation on her behalf. She pressed into my hands a pamphlet Anne had given her with an address on it.
Months later I stood before the threshold of the orphanage. When the doors creaked open it was completely silent. How can this be, I thought. One hundred and fifty children live here!
I could feel the sun envelope me like a warm embrace. In an instant Anne Wanjugu appeared and it was as if I was standing in the presence of an angel. Our meeting and her work with the children profoundly moved me. I was so inspired by what I had witnessed. I wanted to help raise funds to support Anne’s efforts so I created a short video.
Back home, I shared this video with as many people as I could think of. Equally touched and impacted by what they saw, they all donated money and encouraged the making of a documentary. The message was clear – this was a story that needed to be told.
I had done some directing while I was an acting student at NYU, but not much. YIKES!! I needed advice and fast! My husband suggested I contact Ward Chamberlin, a television pioneer he knew through business connections.
Ward Chamberlin is also a lawyer. During World War II he was a volunteer ambulance driver for American Field Service (AFS), which he later helped transform into the first high school foreign exchange program. In addition, he helped draft The Marshall Plan, and is credited with being a cofounder of both PBS and NPR. While at PBS, he discovered Ken Burns, the renowned American director and producer of documentary films.
My husband and I headed to a meeting at Ward’s PBS office. With trembling hands, I pushed in my VHS tape of the children in Kenya performing and pressed play. You could hear a pin drop. But the uncomfortable silence was interrupted upon recognizing a tear falling from his eyes. Ward stood up with authority, and this highly accomplished man of big ideas put his arm around me and said, “Go get this story!”
He advised me that gone were the days when an unknown director could walk into PBS and get funding.
However, he suggested I take my passion and surround myself with the best film team I could find. Encouraged and undeterred by the realities of the new landscape, I set out to get my story. A beautiful serendipity larger than I could possibly have known in that moment was at play.
Passion drove me. Purpose drove me. I was on a mission. I had found my calling. The film I made about the beautiful work of Anne Wanjugu is called Street Journeys.
This was where it started – this is where I activated what I was meant to be doing with my life. Not only had Ward generously mentored me, our paths would continue to cross – and I would go on to tell his story.
Today I am working on a new film (my current labor of love) called The Drivers about a group of unlikely peacemakers who emerged out of World War II. This film is inspired by Ward Chamberlin’s work as an ambulance driver with the AFS.
The Drivers reveals the little-known history of a corps of World War II ambulance drivers who came back from the war to create the world’s first high school student foreign exchange program (also called AFS).
In 1947 the first group of AFS students arrived from Germany, Japan, and Italy, our former enemies in the war. The Drivers tells the extraordinary story of three early participants who paved the way for the hundreds of thousands of high school foreign exchange students that followed. Inspired by this courageous adventure of their youth, these unlikely peacemakers went on to live incredible lives of service.
Combining a rich collection of archival footage, the personal stories of these early participants, and interviews with the AFS ambulance drivers themselves, The Drivers chronicles this extraordinary effort to create a lasting peace between former enemies.
This effort…has not been made merely to give you an interesting year. It has been made because a judgment has been reached that you will be among the future leaders of your country. That you will carry with you a sense of responsibility and commitment…that you will stand in your community, in your state, and in your country for those principles which motivate us all: A chance for everyone, a fair chance, and also for a world in which we have some hope for peace.
~ President JFK addresses AFS students, The White House, 1963
I am indebted to Ward for sparking something within me, for believing in me, and ultimately for entrusting me with his story. I never would have had the courage to make my first film without his support, encouragement, and unwavering belief in a bigger message. There is no greater gift than igniting purpose and passion within another person.
I am always grateful for the incredible talents of my collaborators and for the people who entrust me with their stories – they are precious gifts.
The Drivers, while on one hand progressively groundbreaking in its time, is timeless on the other. The film stands as a testament to what is possible when we see humanity in one another, not divisiveness fueled by borders, race, creed, and political agendas. This amazing group of young men identified the need to transcend the barriers of war – by building bridges of peace. It’s a legacy that continues to grow, as the AFS now operates in more than 60 countries worldwide, with approximately 500,000 alumni.
Rising from the embers of wartime atrocity and tragedy, a story emerges about love, humanity, and peace.
*Author’s note: I am on a mission to document these incredible stories before they are lost forever. I have assembled the most incredible film crew including Graham Willoughby, my cinematographer. Graham’s father was an AFS driver who helped evacuate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Graham’s recent film 20 Feet From Stardom won the Academy Award last year for Best Documentary.
Will you join me in preserving history?
To learn more about the film or to donate to the completion of the film, please visit sandgrainproductions.com