Worldwide, AFS is a group of over 50 independent, not-for-profit organizations, each with its own network of volunteers, professionally staffed office, and volunteer board of directors. In 2007, almost 13,000 participants traveled abroad on AFS cultural exchanges between 65 countries, as supported by 36,000 active volunteers. The U.S.-based affiliate, AFS-USA, sends more than 1,500 U.S. students abroad and places international students with more than 2,800 U.S. families each year.
The volunteer drivers of 1914 found themselves behind the wheels of motorized, not horse-driven, vehicles: Model-Ts, purchased from the nearby Ford plant in Levallois-Perret.
In the fall of 1914, when the warfront moved away from Paris, the American Ambulance set up an outpost in Juilly and sent out detached units of volunteer drivers to serve informally with the British and Belgian armies in the north. In early 1915, one of those drivers---A. Piatt Andrew--- was appointed “Inspector of Ambulances” by the head of the American Ambulance, one of his colleagues from the Taft Administration. In April 1915, Andrew succeeded in solliciting an agreement from the French High Command authorizing “foreign sanitary sections” to work at the warfront as part of the French Army Automobile Service This marked the formal beginning of the American Ambulance’s Field Service, three units of which would made their mark during battles in northern France, the Champagne, Verdun and the Vosges.
By the summer of 1916, the Field Service severed its ties with the American Ambulance and moved its operations from cramped quarters in Neuilly to Paris, onto the spacious grounds of the Delessert château at 21 rue Raynouard in the Passy. There, it grew rapidly over the next year, continuing to provide “sanitary sections” to the French Army, while also serving as a recruitment source of combat pilots for the newly-formed Escadrille Lafayette], one of whose prime movers, Dr. Edmond Gros, was the Field Service’s in-house physician.
When the United States entered the war in April of 1917, the French Army successfully appealed to the Field Service for drivers for its military transport sections --- and so, no longer limited to medical transport, the organization renamed itself the “American Field Service”, thus establishing today’s well-know acronym, “AFS”.
Before the AFS was absorbed into the much larger, federalized U.S.Army Ambulance Service, it had numbered more than 2500 volunteers, including some 800 drivers of French military transport trucks. It had actively recruited its drivers from the campuses of American colleges and universities, promoting morale by creating units with volunteers from the same schools. All financed their own uniforms and transportation to France where they worked under the same conditions as French ambulance drivers--- with the same pay--- and often found themselves serving under extremely dangerous missions on the Front. By the end of the war, some 127 men who had served with the AFS were killed and a notable number of individuals and units earned the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de Guerre for their heroic actions as drivers.
Other volunteer ambulance corps served the French Army as “foreign sanitary sections” during World War I. The first was Henry Harjes’ “Formation” units under the American Red Cross, followed by Richard Norton’s American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps, organized in London under the St. John’s Ambulance (the British Red Cross). Later, both would merge ---under the American Red Cross--- as the “Norton-Harjes”. In the summer and fall of 1917, when all the volunteer ambulance services were invited to join the new U.S. Army Ambulance Service, Norton’s units simply disbanded, while Harjes’, under the American Red Cross, moved into Italy where they would subsequently serve under the USAAS.
Once the Americans entered the war, many drivers joined combat units, both French and American, serving as officers in a wide variety of assignments, notably in air force and artillery units. At the same time, .a large percentage of volunteers signed up for the military, thenceforth members of USAAS units, but remaining identified with their AFS past---a past kept alive through the work of HQ, still at 21 rue Raynouard, where a Bulletin was published and where visiting ambulance drivers could find temporary lodgings and meals.
Following the Great War, the AFS became sponsors for the French Fellowships---graduate student scholarships for study in France and in the US--- which were ultimately administered by the Institute of International Education and were precedents for the Fulbright Foundation exchanges. AFS also created an association for its veterans, publishing a bullletin, organizing reunions and contributing a wing to house its memorabilia at the Museum of Franco-American Cooperation in Blérancourt, France.
When WWII broke out, AFS reorganized its ambulance service, sending units first to France and then to the British Armies in North Africa, Italy, India-Burma and with the Free French for the final drive from southern France to Germany.
In September 1946, Stephen Galatti, president of AFS established the American Field Service International Scholarships. During the 1947-48 school year the first students came from ten countries including Czechoslovakia, Estonia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Syria.
As of 2005 there are over 50 AFS organizations worldwide, serving over 75 different countries, providing exchange opportunities for over 11,000 students and teachers annually.
AFS is one of the largest volunteer-based organizations of its kind in the world with more than 30,000 volunteers worldwide and more than 8,000 in the U.S. Tens of thousands of volunteers and a small staff make the AFS program happen worldwide. AFS volunteers are both young and old, busy professionals and retirees, and students and teachers. AFS provides development and training opportunities for volunteers.
AFS volunteers help in many areas including facilitating the AFS mission in the local community and schools by finding and interviewing students and families. Further involvement includes serving as a contact person for an AFS student, organizing fund raising events, and arranging activities for AFS students. As volunteer-driven organisation, AFS depends on donations of time to implement and monitor the delivery of programmes.