When I began to run into friends and colleagues who had just flown in from around the world in the lobby of Crowne Plaza Hotel in Washington DC this morning, I knew the fun and excitement that had been building around the International Youth Foundation’s 20th anniversary events had finally begun. In the hallway I saw Rana Al Turk from Amman, the director of IYF’s five-year program in Jordan to expand employment and civic engagement opportunities for that country’s at risk youth.  I’d visited a few of those projects earlier this year —including ones in a Palestinian camp and a farming community in the Jordan Valley—and was so happy to see her bright smile in the crowd.

By the end of today, representatives from nearly sixty members of IYF’s global network of youth-serving organizations—from 46 countries—will be gathered together in our nation’s capital to participate in three intense days of meetings, workshops, and discussions. 

I was glad as well to see some of my colleagues from the Philippines who had just arrived. On a recent site visit there to IYF-supported programs, they accompanied me as I met with a group of Muslim youth who had participated in an IYF training program and just been hired for their first jobs. Some of them were former combatants in the local insurgency. I also visited a primary school that had recently been built on a remote island in southern Philippines, the result of a partnership between IYF and our Filipino NGO partners. Students told me that for the first time in their lives they had a roof over their heads, a safe place to play, and new books to read. Capturing and sharing the voices and the stories of these young people is a key—and treasured—part of my job.

At these IYF global partner meetings, I am always struck by the richness of the conversations and deep knowledge and experience that our partners are able to share with us and with each other. They are at the heart of our efforts around the world to improve young people’s lives and expand their opportunities.  And the friendships and relationships that are forged at these gatherings help hold this vast global network of like-minded organizations together, and strengthen our collective impact at both the policy and community levels.

Tonight, our IYF partners will have a real treat in store for them as they join twenty extraordinary youth leaders from around the world who are being honored at an awards ceremony at the Finnish Embassy in DC. These youth leaders are chosen every year as Global Fellows of IYF’s YouthActionNet® program that seeks to develop a new generation of socially-conscious global citizens who create positive change in their communities and the world. I look forward with great excitement to hearing their innovative solutions to some of the toughest challenges they face in their communities, and their stories on how they got there.

There’s much more to come, as IYF’s Youth Leadership & Livelihoods Conference opens tomorrow, with panels on youth employment and citizenship, and a keynote address by President Martti Ahtisaari, the 2008 Nobel Peace Laureate.