Their visit took place at the invitation of the organizers of the Lane Kirkland Scholarship Program, a program of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation implemented by the Leaders of Change Foundation.
The Medal of Gratitude, established by the European Solidarity Center on the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Solidarity Trade Union, is awarded to foreigners who helped Poland in its struggle for freedom and democracy. The Medal Chapter is chaired by Lech Wałęsa, and its members are prominent Polish opposition figures, including Bogdan Borusewicz, Deputy Speaker of the Polish Senate.
Lane Kirkland was a renowned American union activist. In 1979–1995, he was the President of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Under his leadership the AFL-CIO actively supported Solidarity, including through the Polish Workers Aid Fund. The total material aid provided to Solidarity by the AFL-CIO, in the form of equipment and cash, amounted to more than $6 million. Kirkland also provided effective political leverage in the form of AFL-CIO-inspired blockades of commodity exchanges with the Polish communist government (as well as other Eastern bloc countries) in order to cut off the flow of hard currency to the People’s Republic of Poland. He knew that, parallel to direct support of Solidarity, it was necessary to counter disinformation and Soviet propaganda and, therefore, the AFL-CIO sought to stop US budget cuts in relation to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In September 1980 he garnered the support of 59 members of the US Congress for a resolution on this issue.
After the political and economic transition started in Poland, Lane Kirkland became involved in the Polish-American Enterprise Fund, which was established at the initiative of President George H. W. Bush under the “Support for Eastern European Democracy” Act (SEED ACT) passed by the US Congress in 1989. The Enterprise Fund, of which Kirkland was a member of the Board of Directors, actively supported the formation of a market economy in Poland in the 90s. In 1999, President Aleksander Kwasniewski presented the Fund with the Special Economic Award “For special contributions to the development of the Polish economy”. The Fund’s initial capital of $ 240 million was increased by more than 50 percent as a result of strong, prudent investment activities. In 2001, half of the original grant ($120 million) was returned to the US Government. This was the first time for that to ever occur in the history of US foreign aid. Earlier, with the approval of the US Congress and in consultation with the Polish Government, the gradual transfer of the remaining funds to the Polish-American Freedom Foundation commenced.
Lane Kirkland died in 1999 and was buried with honors at the Arlington Cemetery in the US.
A year later, in recognition of his contributions, the Polish-American Freedom Foundation, established by the Enterprise Fund, launched the Lane Kirkland Scholarships Program. Modeled according to the US Fulbright Program, for more than 20 years it has served to share Poland’s experience in internal transformation and European integration with representatives of Eastern European countries as well as the South Caucasus and Central Asia. This involves two-semester complementary courses at Polish universities. In recent years, the Lane Kirkland Scholarships Program has been addressed to applicants from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Between 2000 and 2022, 950 people from 13 countries completed the Program. Most of them came from Ukraine (540), including Iryna Vereshchuk, the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories.