Irish children build friendships, break down walls


COLUMBIA Ireland’s centuries-old troubles must have seemed like something from another world to a group of Belfast children who spent their summer in South Carolina.

They came from Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods resting under an uneasy peace but still policed by gun-toting soldiers and divided by “peace lines” made of corrugated steel. Here, they got a taste of freedom that is hard to come by at home. “Being able to go out in the backyard and play, being able to ride their bikes around the neighborhood it just blew these little girls’ minds,” said Cece Zimmerman of the seven children she and her family have hosted in the past seven years.

This year, the Zimmermans and 31 other Columbia families welcomed 36 Irish children as part of the state’s Irish Children’s Program. The l4-year-old program was initiated by Mary Ellen O’Leary of Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia in an effort to offer the children a chance to escape their often violent world and learn how to create a more peaceful one. Greenville, Spartanburg and Florence groups also sponsor children. About 100 children visited the state this summer.

South Carolina is one of many states in the country with summer programs dedicated to helping Irish children. The South Carolina program got its start simply enough when a group of adults with a desire to help Irish children gathered around O’Leary’s kitchen table one night in the fall of 1983. They developed a program modeled after ones already established on the East Coast. Then they got busy raising money to pay for the children’s plane tickets and finding families willing to host them for the next summer. By April 1984, the group had their funds and their families. In late June, the first children from Belfast touched down in South Carolina.

The program has remained a “kitchen-table” sort of organization. It is all-volunteer on both sides of the Atlantic. In Columbia and in the other S.C. cities, a board drawn from many different denominations is in charge of organizing fund-raisers, finding host families, coordinating travel arrangements and planning summer activities. Each group works with the same coordinator in Belfast, Beryl Hanvey.

Since it began in 1983, the program has hosted more than 1,000 children statewide. Children ages 9-11 from Belfast and nearby Lisburn are selected by their schools to participate in it. Organizers try to send over an even mix of Catholics and Protestants, boys and girls. Each child is buddied with another Irish child close to the same age but of different faith, although they don’t necessarily stay with the same family. Host families are encouraged to take children from a faith different from their own.

The program requires significant participation from host families. “It’s a pretty big commitment,” O’Leary said. “One adult has to be home during the day. They pretty much have to say: ‘We are going to devote our summer to these kids.'” The children arrive in late June and stay for six weeks. At least one and sometimes up to three activities are planned for the children and their host families each day. Zimmerman, a member of St. Joseph Parish and vice-chairman of the Columbia board, has had the job of planning activities for the past two years. While families don’t have to participate in all of the activities, she said it is to the children’s advantage for them to go to as many as possible. Regular interaction helps the children to build friendships and break down the walls of prejudice and misunderstanding that have grown up between them over the years.

No one objects to the constant bustle, especially the Irish children and their American counterparts. “It’s a lot of fun,” said Natalie Zimmerman, Cece Zimmerman’s 15-year-old daughter. Every city develops its own set of activities for the families. This summer, Columbia families went to pool parties, cookouts and day trips to places like the art museum and the zoo. “Columbia really just opens up to us,” Cece Zimmerman said. They also canoed on the Saluda River, went on a nature tour with Rudy Mancke of S.C. Educational Television and were treated to bowling parties by Dick Ames of Anchor Bowling. The Hibernians in Charleston sponsored a day trip for families to their city, and the American Legion hosted the Irish children for a weekend at the beach.

One of the most important activities the Irish and American children participate in is the weekly Monday night ecumenical service. Part of the time is spent singing together in a choir and the rest of the time is devoted to reconciliation. “We assemble banners, do artwork, put on skits and have speakers, different activities built around themes of peace and tolerance,” O’Leary said.

While Ireland’s troubles may be the reason for the program, it’s a topic that is avoided during the children’s stay here. “We ask hosts not to talk about the troubles,” said Katie Herbkersman, also of St. Joseph, who has been secretary of the Columbia organization since its inception. “If the children want to vent, that’s okay.” The sponsoring groups take no stand on politics or religion. “We just hope we’re giving the kids hope for the future and a chance to make friends across sectarian lines,” O’Leary said.

The children take that hope along with their newfound friendships back home to further the cause of peace. South Carolina is unique in that it has established a follow-up program in Belfast to ensure that the ties aren’t broken. The program, called MADCAP, (the Mutual Association for Development of Children’s Action Programs) “nurtures the seed we plant,” Herbkersman said. Once a month, all the children in Belfast who have been to South Carolina meet at the local YMCA to continue their dialogue and keep their relationships alive. They also go on trips together several times a year.

Herbkersman, who has hosted 18 children over the years, also enjoys keeping up with children who have been in the program. She recently returned from one of her frequent trips to Belfast where she and a group of children got together at the local Burger King. She confirms that the program does make a difference. “Kids stay friends when they go home; it’s so nice to see,” she said. “I’ve seen great strides over there as the result of programs like ours.”

Teachers and parents also notice the effect the program has on the children. “They are more confident, more tolerant, and they do better in school,” O’Leary said, “Parents write beautiful letters about how much (the program) meant to their child.”

The South Carolina program attracted quite a bit of media attention this summer. CNN did a feature story on it which caught the eye of a Brazilian network. That network, Global TV, did a story for South American television and plans a follow-up story in Belfast later this month.

They should find a happy, or at least hopeful, ending there. When O’Leary looked at this year’s choir at the end of summer, she said she couldn’t tell who was Catholic and who was Protestant, who was American and who was Irish. “They had become one golden group of kids,” she said.