Connor Carnahan, 12, said he finds the United States “a wee bit the same” as his native Ireland, noting the existence of such eateries as McDonald’s and Burger King in both countries. On the other hand, he and Dominic Liggett, 11, saw many more farms and parks in upstate New York than in their home city of Belfast. Terminology differs as well: Sneakers are known as “gutties” in Ireland, and ketchup is “tomato sauce” or “red sauce.”
“It’s warmer (here),” Connor added as he and Dominic arrived at Rochester’s Seneca Park Zoo on a sweltering Friday, July 22.
Another key difference here is the absence of religious and political violence. It was such longstanding strife in Northern Ireland that led to the formation of Project Children, an incentive to temporarily remove youths such as Connor and Dominic from their challenging environment.
Project Children is coordinated locally through Elmira’s Ancient Order of Hibernians. From June 29 to July 27, five Irish youths — Connor, Dominic and three girls — stayed with host families in the Southern Tier. They had a chance to experience American culture through numerous fun outings, as well as simple everyday living.
“Basically, we tell the host families to treat the child as they would their own children,” said Terry O’Bryan, who served as Project Children coordinator in Elmira for nearly 20 years.
This summer marked the first trip to the United States for Connor and Dominic. Connor stayed with the family of Lisa and Brian Alger, and Dominic lived with the family of Nancy and Allen Peckham. In addition to individual family activities, all participants and host families gathered for a picnic at Harris Hill Park in Big Flats on July 13.
“It has exceeded our expectations. We weren’t sure how comfortable a child would feel with us, but Connor has fit right in,” said Lisa Alger, whose family was a first-time host. On July 22-23 she brought Connor, Dominic and her 8-year-old grandson, Marcus Alger, to Rochester to tour the zoo, Strasenburgh Planetarium and Sea Breeze Amusement Park. She noted that she previously took Connor to Niagara Falls and Fantasy Island, and also involved him in swimming, bowling, go-karting and golf.
Project Children was co-founded in 1975 by Denis Mulcahy, a member of the New York City Police Department who still serves as national chairman. Hundreds of youths travel from Northern Ireland to the United States each summer, with the greatest concentration in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Elmira is one of two Project Children outlets in the Rochester Diocese along with Auburn.
The project was started in the Southern Tier in 1981 by the Hibernians, an organization of Irish-American Catholics that promotes friendship, unity and Christian charity. Maureen Daly, who operates Ireland’s Own gift shop in downtown Elmira, coordinated the program for the first two years. From 1983-2001 that duty fell to O’Bryan and his late wife Margaret. The current director is Rose Kramarik, and remaining committee members are O’Bryan, Ruth Kirk and Marcia and Larry Snyder.
Trips to the United States are arranged through teachers, social workers and clergy in Northern Ireland. Youths fly from there to New York City, where they are picked up by Project Children representatives. Elmira organizers drive to New York City to transport youths at the beginning and end of their stays. The Hibernians also conduct fundraisers to offset travel expenses for first-time visitors (the children’s parents must pay for any return trips), whereas host families are mainly responsible for food and lodging.
Visiting children are 10 to 14 years old and are matched with families who each have at least one similarly aged child. O’Bryan said the project has brought an average of 10 children to the Southern Tier each summer, with slightly lower numbers in recent years.
“Because of the fact the family has to have a child in the same age group, and more and more families have both parents working, it’s becoming more difficult,” O’Bryan said, noting that the program requires at least one parent to be available at all times. New host families are being sought and should call Ruth Kirk at 607/732-0053.
Kirk, for one, said that being a host is well worth the time.
“We’ve had some lovely children this year. I love the program, I absolutely love it. I highly recommend it to anyone,” said Kirk, who attends Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Elmira. She noted that although it’s been 16 years since she hosted any children, she thinks about them often: “My own personal experience will always stay with me. They come into your home and they become a part of your life.”
“Some of the families really become attached. In the majority of cases the child fits right in. You know the situation they may be going back to. You really like this child and would really like him or her to be part of your family,” said O’Bryan, a parishioner of Elmira’s St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo cluster.
Connor and Dominic, who are both Catholic, live in mostly Protestant Northern Ireland. The region has existed under British rule for much of its history and was separated politically from the rest of Ireland in the 1920s when the south became independent. Northern Ireland continued to be the site for ongoing bloodshed between opposing political and religious groups until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, signed by Northern Ireland’s main political parties as well as the British and Irish governments.
“The situation in Northern Ireland has improved vastly. There is less fighting on the streets, less soldiers,” said O’Bryan, noting that in the early years of Project Children, “kids were really scared a lot. There were a lot of fears that don’t seem to exist today.”
However, O’Bryan said, “It’s still not all over with.” Indeed, Connor and Dominic spoke matter-of-factly about gang violence they’ve occasionally witnessed, as well as a notable police presence in the streets of Belfast.
A chief goal of Project Children is to place Irish youths in settings where religious differences are minimized. Protestants have stayed in Catholic homes — and in the case of Lisa Alger, she is a Baptist who hosted a Catholic child.
Yet despite the difficulties back in Ireland and the good times provided by Project Children, there’s still no place like home for young children such as Dominic. He said he will miss “seeing different parks, having fun and just enjoying myself,” adding that he’d like to visit the Southern Tier again. Still, a few days before his stay in the U.S. ended, he admitted to “a wee bit of homesickness. I’m looking forward to seeing my family again.”