Eleven-year-old Amy Fitzgerald was reluctant to end her recent two-week visit to Oslo. But then again, she was happy to get back to her tiny hometown of Decorah, Iowa.
"I still love my little town," said the outgoing fifth-grader of Decorah and its its 7,000 population. "I found it hard to leave Norway, but once I left Norway, I wanted to get home. You could stay in Oslo for weeks and not see all of it but I'd rather live in a little town like that (Decorah)."
Amy earned her trip to Norway through theShare Your Birthday Foundation, an organiation hoping to promote world understanding through the exchange of gifts, letters and photographs among children from cities in the United States and foreign nations.
The foundation, founded in 1949 by Elizabeth Heller, a residentof Massachusets Avenue NW., has sponsored 15 exchanges over the years.
The foundation asks children in an American city and a foreign city to give up one of their birthday presents to be sent overseas via a child messenger, included with each present is a photo and a shorot message from the child. The only restriction is that violent toys, such as guns, are not permited.
However, without outside help, which Heller does not solicit, there will be no more exchanges. The program thrived when she lived in Philadelphia with her husband Ira, a physician who believed in "preventive medicine for the ills of the world as he believed in preventive medicine for the ills of mankind." Heller estimates 100,000 gifts were delivered in 1967.
Ira died in 1968 and the foundation encountered financial and organizational difficulties. Since 1967, the only other exchange has been between Alexandria, Va. and Scotland in 1975. However, no child accompanied the gifts.
"I was always very sentimental about birthdays," explained Heller, who has been the main force behind the program since its beginning. "When I was watching the Cold War after the slaughter (World War II), I realized only through the children can we have a peaceful world.
This year's program actually began last year when Ingunn Didrikson visited Decorah from June 20 through 27 with goodwill and a thousand gifts from Oslo youths to be distributed in Decorah to third, fourth and fifth graders when the schools opened in the fall.
Amy earned the right to represent Decorah, a town with a strong Nordic Heritage, on the return trip in February by first writing a short autobiography and then by explaining in a personal interview why she wanted to make the journey.
She first passed through Washington May 12 and had a short meeting with Amy Carter at her school before leafing for Oslo. On the way back, she again stopped in Washington for a special White House Tour and a visit to the National Zoo and the State Department, where she talked about her venture before going home.
For Amy, the trip is unforgettable.
"I was lonely for my parents, but I was so busy I didnt't have much to think about it," she added. "I have a lot of letters from my grandparents. They must have thought I was lonely or something the way they wrote me."
It is doubtful that Elizabeth Heller's foundation will be able to continue providing experiences like those Amy Fitzgerald experienced.
"Unfortunately, I've reached the point - and this is not a sob story - where I've given up my life's fortune to it, and now I can't do it again," Heller said. "Oh my, yes. I'd do it agins. I'll say this. when I had the money, I never thought I'd spend it this way.