YFU’s history began very humbly in the United States in 1951 in an effort to heal the wounds of World War II. Understanding that the hardships prevalent in Germany after the war were having devastating effects on the country’s youth, placing them in a cycle of bitterness, hopelessness, and despair, American minister John Eberly made a proposal to church leaders. He asked to bring teenagers from war-torn Germany to the United States to live with a family and attend high school for a year. By teaching a group of young people how families lived together in the United States, the hope was that they would be motivated to return to Germany and rebuild the country as a democracy, according to what they had observed while living in the United States.
This vision was brought to life by Dr. Rachel Andresen who founded YFU and served as its longtime Executive Director. Prior to YFU’s conception, in 1948, Dr. Andresen was in attendance when the city lights of Amsterdam were turned on for the first time after the war. That moment of sudden illumination of the entire city was so impressive she vowed to do everything she could with her life “so that the lights would never go out again.” In 1973, her hard work and commitment to international youth exchange were recognized when she became a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
The initial exchanges established the family living experience and provided the impetus for YFU expansion to other parts of the world. In the mid-fifties, the program grew to include Scandinavia, and later expanded to western and central Europe. YFU bridged the Pacific in 1958 when the first students came from Japan. Youth For Understanding was introduced to Latin America in 1958, beginning with Mexico; South American countries opened their doors to YFU in 1959. Eastern Europe came on board in 1989, and Africa in 1994, beginning with South Africa.