Irish Children Visit America
Our first summer
Did it start with violence in Northern Ireland or my love of children? I would have to say both. I have always loved children. I was disappointed when I was told by my doctor after the birth of our fourth child that I should not have any more children due to complications during delivery.
Our youngest was 8 years old when a friend asked if we would be interested in bringing an Irish child to stay with us for six weeks in the summer. Needing more information I found out the organization sponsoring these children was called Project Children. Project Children was started by a NYC Bomb Squad Detective and his brother in 1975. They wanted to get children out of Northern Ireland for a summer and give them a look at how the rest of the world lives. They wanted them to see that Catholics and Protestants live together. Remember, this was during the Troubles in Northern Ireland when there were police and army everywhere, even military bases in Northern Ireland. "The Troubles" began in Northern Ireland in the '60s with bloody riots. The actual date is still not determined. Events such as the civil rights March in Derry, The Battle of the Bogside, or the arrival of British troops thinking they could quell the violence, have all been attributed with the beginning of the Troubles. The Troubles were partially caused by a bias of unequal seats in the council house and discrimination in Ireland. Protestants were more represented than Catholics and got more government investment in their neighborhoods. Children were subject to bombings, raids, and Catholic and Protestants hating each other.
For me, this sounded like a good organization with great goals, so we signed up. We were interviewed by the Greenwood Lake area coordinator, who came to our home to check us out and check our home out as well. She told us we would receive information about the child who would be coming to stay with us. We did not specify Catholic or Protestant or boy or girl, though we were given those choices. Since we had two boys and two girls of our own, sex was not an issue. Within a couple of weeks we received the awaited envelope. We were all excited to see who was coming to stay with us. The letter contained a data sheet about the boy who would be our visitor. He was from Derry in Northern Ireland and happened to be Catholic. He was 9 years old. My youngest, a boy, was 8. His father had been an African American soldier who had settled in Ireland and married a woman there. He was one of four children. We knew that children in Northern Ireland are no different than children anywhere else in the world including New York! We wrote to him right away telling him about our family and our animals and sent him pictures of ourselves, since we now had a picture of him we wanted to give him something about us. We couldn't wait for the end of June to go pick him up at the airport.
Nothing we do is ever simple and it seemed our Project Children experience wasn't going to be either. We all piled into the van to drive to Kennedy Airport to meet our guest, Tony. We knew we were a tad early and would have to wait for the plane to land. We were amazed when we saw just how many people were there waiting for the plane. Six hundred children were arriving and would be staying all over the Northeast and many more than six hundred people were there to greet them. This first year we waited for the plane to land in the airport at the International Arrivals Building. There were people with Irish flags, hats, greetings, flowers, you name it, they were everywhere! When the plane landed it was organized bedlam. Six hundred children filed out of the plane, all looking bewildered and a little scared, carrying their luggage in hand. Think about it, would you put your 9 year old on a plane to travel halfway around the world, just to stay with strangers for six weeks? That gives you a perspective of how things were in Northern Ireland back then. These kids didn't know us and had no idea what they were in for! They were told they were chosen by lottery to go to America for the summer. They were also told once they arrived they couldn't go home until the six weeks were up. The lottery story wasn't exactly the truth. The teachers in the schools picked the children they thought were most in need of the trip and able to handle it. The staying part was true. Once they left Ireland on that plane there was no turning back.
We all had to wait to find our child, recognize him from the small picture we had, and then try to get his attention. By some miracle we did find Tony. We managed to get back to our van all together. We took some pictures at the airport. We wanted to chronicle his trip in photos so he would have something to look back on in years to come. When we got in the van, it began. He started talking ninety miles an hour and we all looked at each other, what did he say? His brogue could be cut with a knife. I explained to him that it was difficult for us to understand him and he would have to speak slower until we could catch up. He did try but often slipped back into his speed talk. I believe we spent the first two weeks or so saying, "What did you say?" After that our children were able to translate for us.
Naturally there was an adjustment period for all of us. We now had a stranger in our midst and for him, well that's a whole other ball game. He adapted well. He loved our dogs and loved to torment our youngest son. Our TV was different for him and he liked the children's shows and movies we had available. He also loved The Price is Right and spent most of the summer saying, "come on down". Food was another challenge. The names of foods differ between here and there. For example, french fries are chips and potato chips are crisps. We went through this learning curve together. He loved all of the sugar sweetened cereals we had and either chips or crisps, they were fine too. Amazingly when we took him grocery shopping to pick out the foods he liked one of his choices was beets! His favorite food was Captain Crunch peanut butter flavor. We bought him toys and clothes to take home, again things that would make his trip memorable and things he might not get back home.
When the noon fire whistle blew, Tony headed for cover. He thought it was an air raid. We had to explain the noon whistle as well as the fire siren. We assured him there were no air raids here. We had friends who were policemen and he wanted to throw rocks at them until we explained they were friends and things are different here. We came to learn that Tony was a spitfire and took on any challenge head on without fear which included throwing rocks at police cars back home.
We decided to take Tony to Niagra Falls thinking it would be a great thing for him to see. Well, it was but, even in 1984 if you weren't a US citizen you needed a passport to cross the Canadian border. The border officer was very nice. He explained he would gladly let us into Canada, but once there we couldn't get back into the US without Tony's passport. We decided to stay on the American side just in case. We camped, went to the Darien Lake Amusement Park and we all loved all of it.
Near the end of the six weeks Project Children held a huge picnic/gathering for all of the Irish children and their host families. It was a great experience for all of us. When we got there the Irish children were happy to see some of their friends and show us how well they played soccer. Once they all got together we were hopelessly unable to understand their conversations! There were games and entertainment, a day no one wanted to see end.
When it was time to get ready to leave, things got somber at our house. We took Tony back to the airport, got him safely on the plane, and watched as the Aer Lingus plane flew overheard. That's when I broke down. I cried hysterically. After only six weeks, sending him home was like losing one of my own. My husband swore we would never do this again if it was going to tear me apart so badly. After much discussion, not only did we agree to do it again but we agreed to try to bring Tony back one more time. When the children are brought over from Northern Ireland initially, Project Children pays the airfare and carries a medical insurance policy for each child. If you decide to bring the same child back, you are responsible for their air fare. We had four children at the time and were far from wealthy. We wrote to Tony's parents and asked if there was any way they could come up with half the air fare and we would pay the other half. They agreed, so year two, Tony returned.
Having Tony with us the second year was like bringing your boy home. We were all comfortable, knew each other and had a great summer. He was comfortable with us, we were comfortable with him. He was so comfortable, he took to bossing around our youngest son. When Tony left this time I was able to keep it together, a few tears but no hysteria. When we discussed the next summer, year three, we decided it would be nice to give another child a chance so we contacted Project Children asking for a new child to be sent.
When our envelope arrived, it was another boy from Derry, Northern Ireland, and by chance another Catholic, Peter. If ever there was a little elf, it was our Peter. His personality was very different from Tony's. His brogue just as thick, but his demeanor more quiet and respectful. Peter was one of five children. He was a gentle, loving child and everyone that met him immediately fell in love with him. We wined and dined Peter as we had Tony. We went to the beach in New Jersey and Peter was a bit afraid of the ocean so he sat on the shoreline letting the water (and sand) come up into his lap. After the beach we headed for Great Adventure. A short time after arriving we noticed Peter was walking funny. When I asked what was wrong he said he was sore between his legs. We found the first aid station and learned that the water and sand had irritated and left a rash between his legs. Poor Peter walked around like he just got off a horse for the rest of the day. We bought him a green hat that he never took off. We affectionately called him "our little weirdo with the green hat", which we still joke about with him to this day. There is so much more to tell about Peter. He returned to stay with us two more summers, once with Tony's brother "Packy", and once with his own brother Anthony. His next visit was years later with his bride, but that's another hub as is our visit to Northern Ireland.
I would highly recommend this wonderful experience to anyone. It is enriching for your children and for the children from Ireland. I learned a lot about Northern Ireland and believe we touched the lives of those four boys.
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