Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ode to IYS

Going to the mailbox has been my favourite part of the day since I started penpalling in the early 80s. But it was extra-exciting if I found a letter from an unassuming-sounding organization in Finland, called IYS: International Youth Service.

Their mailouts contained delectable possibilities of international cross-cultural friendship and armchair travel. I would stretch out on the living room carpet, world atlas open nearby, and pore over their forms for hours, trying to limit my penpal applications to a reasonable number. (I suspect that my conception of "reasonable" and that of my parents may have been somewhat different! Fortunately for me and my far-flung friends, though, they indulged my writing interest.) Through sending me their appealing, multicoloured forms, IYS - and not the school system - is largely responsible for my grasp of world geography, as well as for my awareness of and fascination with the tiniest of countries. Places as diverse as Luxembourg and Réunion, for example. And yes, I did manage to find penpals in both places...I am grateful to have a very good friend in Luxembourg even now. (Hi, Nadine!)

The form you see here particularly interests me because it dates from 1986, during the Cold War, before the Eastern Bloc countries were open to outsiders. What a great day it was, when I received my first IYS form listing Russia and other formerly closed nations! Meanwhile, one of my German penpals, from Berlin, recounted her participation in an elated, all-night street party when the Berlin Wall fell. World events took on a personal significance.

But back to IYS...I loved them because they were not only the first penpal organization I came into contact with, but also because they provided the best penpal service I've ever experienced to this day. They asked prospective penpals to choose the top four countries on the form, from which they wanted a correspondent. Then they did their best to fulfill these wishes. Most of the time, in my experience, they came through. If they couldn't, though, they would still provide you with a penpal address from another country, which was gracious on their part. Even more gracious still, was their replacement guarantee. If you did not receive an answer to your initial letter, after a reasonable time to allow for the vagaries of world postal systems, you could request a new address, free of charge.

Pictured above is the kindly letter they included, whenever this happened. I especially like the graphic, which expressed just how disappointed I felt, whenever my new penpal didn't work out.

I came to love their little response forms, which you see below. At the top, they listed the recipient's name. Below that, their country, interests by letter code (you could choose up to 5), and the four countries (also by code), in order of priority, from which you'd requested a penpal. (In this case: Germany, Iceland, Poland, Netherlands.)

I read and dreamed over IYS forms so much, that I internalized their country codes - and I still use them, more than 30 years later, as shorthand for the nations' names. (I also passed them on to my husband, Steve, when he designed my PenPalPro database, to keep track of when I receive and send letters, along with addresses, important dates, etc. So the codes are now en-coded in software, too!) Beneath the country codes, in the yellow box, are the details on my new penpal. You can see she is female, born in '73, then her interest codes are listed, plus her name and address. I'm glad I kept this response form, as I began writing Tanja in 1991, after after a year-long, introductory German language course during my first year at university. I wanted to practice my newfound German skills, limited though they were, and to meet someone from the country whose language fascinated me. Ten years later, she and her husband came to visit us in Canada. And we're still in touch now, sharing stories of family life, careers and vacations.

Several more of my long-standing penpal friendships came from IYS, too. My relationship with my Swedish friend, Cecilia - whom I now consider a sister - is one of them. We first met through snail mail more than 30 years ago. Since then, we've met in person four times, she attended our wedding, and our children even know each other now. I'm grateful for the role of IYS in my life - I wouldn't be who I am today, without their influence. Even our daughter's name is the result of penpal influence - but that's a story for another day.

Does anyone else out there remember IYS with fondness? What are your stories? And have you found new organizations that rival their gracious yet efficient service?

Over the coming weeks, I'll keep researching and sharing what I know about other penpal organizations. But for now - thank you, IYS!


  1. Julie, I remember IYS they are my favorite penpal organization ever. The ones today are not the same and I just don't have the luck like I did with IYS, and I think it was because they would offer the replacement. I still have some of the penpals I started with over 30 years ago as well and I treasure those friendships today. I wished they offered for all ages

  2. I was not aware of them, alas. They sound remarkable, however. You've got such an elegant description.

  3. Coucou Julie! Ca m'a fait vraiment plaisir de lire ton article parce qu'il me rappelle tellement de merveilleux souvenirs! IYS m'a accompagné durant plusieurs années aussi et m'a permis de développer mon amour pour la correspondance qui ne s'est jamais démenti depuis. Il y avait d'abord le plaisir de remplir le formulaire avec beaucoup de soin, puis l'attente de la réception des adresses. Et quand elles arrivaient, elles me faisaient déjà rêver. Puis il y avait l'écriture de la lettre d'introduction et l'attente de la réponse. J'ai gardé toutes les adresses qu'ils m'ont envoyés et leurs autocollants. La plus ancienne correspondante (et amie) que j'ai connue grâce à eux vient d'Allemagne et nous sommes en contact depuis 1984. Il y a aussi Suvi de Finlande que je connais depuis 1987. Nous nous sommes rencontrées pour la première fois en 2012 et avons pu fêter nos 25 ans d'amitié ensemble! Voilà pour mon petit témoigne! Ca m'a fait plaisir de trouver quelqu'un qui ressente le même chose à propose de IYS! Gaëlle aka the amazing Breton lady at the LEP!