Project Children – Breaking the Divide

by Chris Kenny
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Project Children – Breaking the Divide

Dia Duit arís! (hello again)

I’m sure many of you know about the troubles that took place 40 years ago in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants that resulted in many lives lost and ruined. Seeing imagery and videos through the news inspired two Irish immigrants to take action and help out those children caught in the cross fire.

In 1975 Project Children was born; an idea by Denis Mulcahy, along with his brother Pat. They had both grown up in County Cork, Ireland, and immigrated to New York, where they joined the New York Police Department. Denis is still with the force; he's a bomb squad detective. Pat retired early because of an injury and returned to County Cork.

In 1975, Northern Ireland was a boiling pot of political violence. Armed soldiers, rolling tanks, and surveillance cameras were everywhere, trying to keep the lid on. People were dying and children were growing up scared. Protestant and Catholic families were insulating themselves against each other - fleeing integrated neighborhoods in search of segregated enclaves. Denis and Pat decided to do something to help the children. That summer they brought six kids from Northern Ireland-three Protestants and three Catholics to Greenwood Lake, NY, where they lived. The idea was twofold. Most importantly they wanted to get the kids away from the violence and the paramilitaries who work double time recruiting kids during school breaks. Denis and Pat also wanted to show the Protestant and Catholic kids that they could live together and like each other.

Their plan worked very well. One of the Catholic boys became great friends with one of the Protestants. Years later, when the Catholic boy got married, the Protestant boy was at his side as his best man. Then the Protestant boy got married, and the Catholic boy was at his side, returning the favor. Project Children has grown a lot from the initial six kids and the $1600 budget it took to bring them over.

Denis is an extraordinary man and could not have known in 1975 just how strong and how sweeping Project Children's influence would be. He takes no salary from Project Children and works long hours tending to the big plans and small details of running the organization. Over the past twenty-five years he has quietly masterminded summer vacations in America for more than 14,000 children in Northern Ireland. He has given
these children - Protestant and Catholics a much-needed break from the grim politics of their own country and an extraordinary chance to play together. He hasn't done it all alone, and he will be the first to tell you. While talking to Denis, if you try to praise him or thank for his hard work and the amazing opportunity we have been given, he will quickly start praising Project Children host families, area coordinators, fundraising volunteers,
and benefactors. Denis considers himself simply one of the many. But Denis is truly the heart and soul of Project Children.

Denis has been recognized by President Bill Clinton. He's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize-twice. He's been honored at gatherings across America and Northern Ireland. But all that praise doesn't swell Denis' head. He still pitches in wherever he's needed. When a young Belfast girl's luggage was put on the wrong plane in New York, it was Denis who tracked it down in Dublin.

In 1995, Project Children decided to build on the success of the children’s program. The organization extended its reach to university students by initiating the Summer Work Travel program, the program I am lucky enough to be a part of.

With such a large network of coordinators and host families built up over the years throughout the US, Project Children could pre-arrange several placements through their extensive contacts. In much the same way as the children’s program, students were brought over to the US during the summer to work and live. This gave the students the opportunity to gain some invaluable work experience in an international setting.

Now running for almost 20 years, over 600 students have taken part in the program. It has grown from the initial 10 students per summer, to over 45 students some summers. Similar to the children’s program, this has all been made possible through private donations and government grants, the hospitality of the host families, and the effort of the Project Children volunteers.

This year, 23 students including myself made the trek from little-old Ireland to the United States all studying towards various degrees including Business, Law and Medicine to name a few. We are placed throughout America in New York State, Michigan and Alabama. Given Ward and Mary’s strong Irish connection, they were keen to take on another intern and I was placed here based on their needs and my previous experience in business and retail.

Project Children works very closely with Habitat for Humanity in Tuscaloosa, Alabama so before we began our internships, we went there for a week to aid the restoration of 2 local housing projects. We stayed on a remote campsite outside of Tuscaloosa center with no internet access and basic amenities. It was like something from a movie – we would all help out with meals and eat together in a big communal hall. It had outdoor toilets and showers and in the evenings we would sit around a campfire making s’mores and singing camp songs. I felt so young again! The work we did that week was intense due to the heat and humidity (which is to be expected in Alabama) but despite all the obstacles we completed our housing project and at the end of the week we all attended a ceremony where we presented the newly refurbished house to its owner. The house I worked on was
a donated house that had been turned into a community center by a wonderful woman who gave up her time years ago to give free piano lessons to less fortunate children. It was amazing to give back to her after her many years of service to the community and the look of glee in her eyes was priceless. While we were in Alabama FOX news sent a reporter out for some information about the project and I was interviewed about my
experiences. A picture can be seen below! (This misspelled my name unfortunately!)

I hope this blog has given you a further insight into the Project Children Program, and the amazing work of founder Denis Mulcahy. I just want to stress again how thankful I am to Denis and the project for my experience in America, and how much I am enjoying it so far!
If any readers want to donate towards the organization or feel they could get involved somehow, either acting as a host family or providing an internship please feel encouraged to write to myself or Denis directly. Everyone who takes part has great fun and it’s a real learning experience for Irish to learn about the American lifestyle but also for Americas to learn from the students.

Thanks for reading...

by Chris Kenny


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