By SHEILA OJENDYK
SIMPSONVILLE — “If we are to have real peace, we must begin with the children.” Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words are the framework upon which the Irish children summer programs are built.
There are Irish children summer programs scattered all over the United States, with three in South Carolina. Each brings Catholic and Protestant children from Northern Ireland to the United States for a summer of both fun and purposeful activities in an environment of peace and safety. Summer is the marching season in Northern Ireland, a time when violence often occurs.
Sixteen Irish children, ages 9 to 11, and four Irish junior chaperones arrived in Greenville on June 28 and returned on Aug. 4. A similar program in Columbia brought 30 children, and another in Spartanburg brought 22.
According to Sandy Conant, co-chair of the Greenville program, “the focus is on Irish children bonding with other Irish children, not coming to America to see Disney World.”
Conflict resolution skills are built into all activities. Greenville’s program included a computer camp, a swim-a-thon in which the children raised money to fund a follow-up program, and a picnic. The highlight of the picnic was a soccer game in which the Irish children, Catholics and Protestants together, teamed up against children from their American host families. The five-week program culminated in an ecumenical worship service Aug. 3 at the First Presbyterian Church in Greer.
Catholic children are placed with Protestant host families, and vice versa. Host families with no children of their own in the 9-to-11 age range take two children of the same sex, a Catholic and a Protestant.
Each Irish child is required to attend his or her own church every week. Host families accommodate this requirement by either attending two church services or exchanging children on Sunday mornings with other host families. Most Protestants in Northern Ireland belong to either the Church of Ireland (a member of the Anglican Communion) or the Presbyterian Church.
All Irish children summer programs are independent and raise their own funds. The Greenville program pays for airfare and insurance and budgets $1,500 for each child.
A volunteer coordinator in Belfast, working in tandem with teachers and school headmasters, selects the children most likely to benefit from the summer program. Among the criteria are potential for leadership and exposure to violence.
Once the Irish children arrive in America, they are not allowed any direct telephone contact with their families in Ireland, only letter or email. Maura Morgan, a three-time host mother, wrote about this matter in the parish newsletter at Prince of Peace: “In the beginning, we wondered how parents could allow their young children to go so far away for so long with no contact except through chaperones and the program’s director in Ireland. As we learned, however, about the situation in Northern Ireland and how violence occurs regularly in their neighborhoods, we realized that the Irish parents want to keep their children out of harm’s way.”
Homesickness is not a problem. Conant credits the junior chaperones with making the Irish children feel comfortable. Any emergencies that arise are addressed by the chaperones.
Once the children return to their homes in Northern Ireland, they are urged to participate in weekly MADCAP (Mutual Association for the Development of a Children’s Action) follow-up sessions at the YMCA in Belfast. Again, the focus is on combining fun with reconciliation. The Irish volunteers are encouraged by the long-term results of the various summer programs.