Franci Neely has traveled the world and she says the most meaningful memories she's taken home from her trips are always the connections she's made along the way. The Houston-based philanthropist - who has been everywhere from Kuwait, India, and Spain to Cuba and London - recalls an especially inspiring friend she made during a getaway to the Philippines.
She was particularly moved by a woman named Virginia and her daughter. Neely says she was in a tiny village surrounded by rice terraces when she had a chance encounter.
"I met a woman named Virginia, who is now my pen pal," Neely recalls. "She and I just had this connection. She really doesn't speak English. Her daughter writes to me on her behalf. Virginia and I just looked at each other and I felt like she was my sister."
Franci Neely Reflects on the Gift of International Connections
Neely, who has been frequently recognized for her philanthropic and volunteer work, looks back on the day she felt compelled to gift Virginia with a piece of jewelry she was wearing.
"I had a piece of silver jewelry, a necklace, on that day and I just reached out and put it on her neck," she says. "She said, 'No, I cannot. I don't have anything to give you that's as good.' Then I said, 'I don't want it. You are giving me something. Just your kindness to me.'"
She says the woman did present her with a vintage ethnic hat from her grandfather. The cultural connoisseur - who was recently honored for a donation to Hermann Park Conservancy in Houston - happens to collect ethnic hats from around the world and says she treasures the friendship she and Virginia formed. They continue to write to each other frequently.
However, that's not the only time Neely's life was touched by her travels. Everywhere she goes has had an impact on her life and traveling to Iran had a profound effect on her worldview. "I went to a number of different towns and cities in Iran," she says. "People would come up and just want to embrace me."
How Globe-Trotting Led to Godchildren and Pen Pals
Franci Neely was also taken with a pen pal she made about three decades ago in Hong Kong.
"I was having lunch, Peking duck," Neely remembers. "I'll never forget it. In a little restaurant that seemed to be populated by a lot of locals, a little girl, about age 6 at the time, was very interested in me for some reason."
She says the child kept coming back to her table, wanting to be near her. "She did not speak a word of English, but her family was at another table and her dad did speak some English," Franci Neely says. "He came up and said, 'I'm sorry. I hope she's not bothering you.' I said, 'Not at all.' We exchanged addresses. She's now 34 now. We have been in touch all of these years. She is part of my life."
Neely says she considers her a goddaughter and has returned to Hong Kong to see her, and the young woman has visited her in the United States. "She's now engaged to be married," she says. "So that's another travel story where I have a pen pal goddaughter from abroad."
Franci Neely reminisces about other pen pals she's made over the years and how these individuals have enriched her life.
"I have a pen pal in Indonesia. His name is Eka. He still emails me," she adds. "I have a friend in Cameroon who also emails me."
She says she's the lucky one, however, to have the time and means to be able to maintain such friendships and looks forward to fulfilling her goal of visiting every country in the world within the next few years. While the pandemic hindered her travel plans for a bit, she recently went on a safari to Africa and is planning more trips.
Franci Neely has also made an impact stateside. She recalls an encounter she had while trying to hail a cab in lower Manhattan. A benevolent bystander insisted on waiting with her until an Uber arrived. She later sent him a check for his courtesy; he used the money to get medical attention for his mother.
The big-hearted Texan was grateful for the random act of kindness. She's thankful for the vast network of friends she's made over the years and says he never takes it for granted.
"I'm very fortunate in having a pretty vast but meaningful network of really close friends. They are my family too," Franci Neely says. "I want to make a difference and I want to give back. What's my time on Earth if not to give back in some way?"