One sentence in a photo book Peggy Cramer had printed explained well her and DeeEllen Ervin Davis’ longtime friendship with Alice Salles of Rio de Janeiro.
“Miles can’t keep us apart.”
The book commemorated a trip the three friends from two different countries took to Sanibel Island, Florida.
The trip was just one of several the friends have taken together since they met 45 years ago, when Salles was an exchange student at Parsons High School her senior year.
“I come from a very big family. I am the youngest of seven, and all my brothers and sisters came to U.S. as an exchange student and the same happened in my house in Brazil. We received many American students, six before I came and two after I came, so we had eight American students spending a year with us. My parents sent me here as part of an international program, Youths For Understanding International. It is all over the world. I came in 1971 because the age to come is between 16 and 17. So I came here,” she said.
She did not get to choose her family or even the state she would go to.
“They always send us to very small American towns to live the American way,” Salles said. “I came to Iowa first, and all of us from all over the world met in Iowa. I don’t remember how many we were, but we were many, more than 100 for sure, and from all over the world.”
Arriving in Parsons, she resided with Joe and Rosemary Duffy and their daughter, Kathleen.
Though she only knew a few words of English upon her arrival, she grew very close to the Duffy family, and Salles, Cramer and Davis became fast friends.
“I have everything from Parsons. Everything. I might have my flight tickets, and I still have my passport,” she said.
The first 10 years, the friends stayed in touch frequently, writing letters.
“I came back to the U.S. to visit in 1981. I visited DeeElleen in Kentucky and then came to Parsons to visit Peggy and the Duffys,” she said. “After that, I don’t know what happened.”
The three somehow lost touch, focusing on careers and family.
Cramer said a couple of letters she sent to Salles were returned, so she was not sure what had happened.
“So computer came. Facebook came and I said, ‘I miss the girls. I’ve got to find the girls,’ and I found them on Facebook, and we got close together,” Salles said of the three reuniting via social media seven years ago.
The three had much to catch up on.
Salles, after leaving Parsons and returning to Brazil, went on to get her master’s in business.
“And I always study ballet. I graduated at Opera House. I have an MBA in physical therapy, and I work a lot with that, with the dance, and I dance a lot. I had my own school of dance in Rio for 15 years. I had my own company. I used to dance for a company, but after that I became a choreographer, so I had my own company. I worked for three years for the Olympic games in Rio, and I was a volunteer during the games. … Now I work for the government, the Culture Ministry, and choose the best projects in classic music because I work with them too, and ballet, to get sponsors to bring the companies there. Always involved with culture.”
Being an exchange student, Salles said, and her family hosting exchange students was most definitely a contributor to her love of different cultures and love of travel.
Catching up with one another takes time, and the three friends make the time.
“We try and Skype once a month now,” Cramer said. “I said she’s like a comfortable old shoe. Maybe you haven’t worn it in awhile, but when you put it on, it just feels good, and it fits and you don’t have to break it in or anything,” Cramer said. “There was nothing uncomfortable. We just picked up.”
Whenever possible, they try to get together in person, too.
Five years ago, Salles returned to America for the 40th class reunion.
Since then, they’ve gone to Florida together. Davis went to Brazil to visit Salles in 2015, though Cramer could not make the trip, but when Salles made another trip to Florida to visit family, Cramer went there to visit her. Last year, the three took a trip together to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to see the Smokey Mountains, and to Ashville, North Carolina.
“And this year I am here,” Salles said of returning to Parsons again to visit her friends and enjoy their 45th class reunion.
Mrs. Duffy within the past year moved to a nursing facility in Wichita to be close to her two daughters.
“I went to Wichita to visit them. They are my family, too. I used to call her mom,” Salles said of Mrs. Duffy, adding that Mr. Duffy was “Dad” and Kathleen is her sister. Mr. Duffy died in 2012.
Salles had other plans, too, while in Wichita. She had Cramer and Davis meet her there in order for them all to go together to see Paul McCartney in concert on Wednesday.
Davis said it was their shared birthday celebration because her birthday was the day of the concert, and Salles and Cramer share a birthday on Aug. 9.
“There’s nothing like good friends,” Davis said.
“I don’t know what we are doing next year, but we are starting to make plans for the next year,” Salles said.
Thinking back on her experiences as a teenage exchange student coming to America, Salles said the opportunity afforded her many learning experiences, from being away from her parents and caring for herself to making independent decisions and learning not to be afraid.
“We grow a lot,” she said. “That for me was the most experience I could have.”
Beyond the learning there are the friendships she made here.
“Parsons is here, in my heart, and it’s deep,” Salles said, tapping her chest lightly. “I told Peggy, ‘I cannot live without you any more. I need you.’”
“When you have a strength relation, strong and loyal, then you know you can count on them. … It’s more than family. … We built that since I was here.”
To any youth considering being an exchange student, Salles said, “Go. Do it. It’s the best experience before you get adult. It’s the best experience you can ever have. If you have the opportunity to know another custom and culture, the way other places live… We are all the same. We have some difference. Take a family and live with a family. It’s a wonderful experience. And try to learn the language. And be open. You have to be open so you won’t be afraid. You have to be open to receiving love from people. I received a lot of love from here. That is why I come back here. Parsons is important for me. U.S. is important for me.”