They may never have been inside the home of a Protestant or a Catholic.
But when they enter homes of Americans this summer, children from war-torn and religiously polarized Belfast, Northern Ireland, will see how the other half lives.
And based on his experience as a board member and now as president of the nonprofit and nonpolitical Irish Children’s Program of Rochester, Bryan Kindlon said the children ages 10 to 14 will find that their host families live very similarly to how they do, despite religious differences.
That’s one of the main lessons that the program aims to teach: that people are the same everywhere, and that it is possible for Catholic and Protestants to live in harmony, said Kindlon, a parishioner of Brighton’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Church. The group, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, aims to “promote peace through understanding,” according to its mission statement
But also importantly, the program was begun in 1982 to show Irish children what it’s like to live without daily fear.
Right now organizers are in the process of signing up host parents for the summer. The program will host an all-ages benefit concert featuring local Irish bands from 1 to 8 p.m. April 1 at the Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water St., Rochester. In the fall, the program will celebrate its anniversary with a dinner dance at the Marriott in Rochester.
Volunteers also will be selling green carnations at local churches during the next few weeks and at the St. Patrick’s Day parade to raise money for the program. The money raised goes toward travel expenses and summer activities. Host families, who do not need to be Irish or have an in-depth understanding of Irish politics, are asked to provide love, room and board.
Each year the program brings to Rochester an equal number of Catholic and Protestant children. The dispute in Belfast, in general, centers more on politics than theology. Northern Ireland’s Catholics, for the most part, want an independent, united Ireland, and Protestants in general want the country to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The longstanding violence has claimed the lives of 3,000 people since 1970, Kindlon said.
Despite cease-fires and peace deals, sectarian violence and drug-related squabbles have continued to flare.
“Catholics stay in Catholic neighborhoods, and Protestants stay in Protestant neighborhoods,” Kindlon said.
When they arrive in America, the children do not get speeches about peace, Kindlon said. Instead, they bond through sports and other activities. Planned activities include visiting Seabreeze Amusement and Water Park, attending Red Wings baseball and Raging Rhinos soccer games, going ice skating and miniature golfing, and attending opening and closing picnics.
“They get to know each other as kids,” Kindlon said.
Over the last 25 years, the program has brought more than 700 kids to the U.S. Many have maintained friendships they formed even after returning to Belfast. There are several neutral areas in the city where the children can meet each other safely.
Children arrive in Rochester at the end of June and stay until Aug. 4. The timing of the trip coincides with Marching Season, a time of political demonstrations and unrest in Belfast, Kindlon said.
Sometimes it takes awhile for children to adjust to the culture shock they feel, Kindlon said.
“They walk around Wegmans until they see food they recognize,” Kindlon said. “They can’t believe you can just go from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
Eventually, the children become members of their host families, and many return year after year, Kindlon said.
The bond formed between child and host family is strong, said Margaret Garske of Brockport, whose family has hosted children since 2002. Garske attends the Newman Catholic Community at the State University of New York College at Brockport, and her husband is Protestant.
Last year, Garske and her family journeyed to Belfast, where they saw firsthand the fear that children live with of violating the strict segregation in the city. They stayed with the family of a Catholic girl they have hosted for several years.
“It was amazing to hear her mother talk about the past and what went on and how they were trying to get past it,” said Garske, who noted that she was warmly welcomed throughout her visit to Ireland.
For example, the Catholic girl her family hosted and a Protestant girl had become best friends through the program, but they had to be discrete when they met in Belfast, because they are afraid of retribution, Garske said.
“It’s working,” Garske said. “It’s really working. It’s amazing because (without this program) these two people would never even have had the chance to talk to each other.”
Garske said the host program also helped broaden the horizons of her daughters, Jayna, 18, and Hannah, 16.
“It was such an educational experience,” Garske said. “They love to give to the community now.”
For details on the Irish Children’s Program of Rochester, call Brian Kindlon at 585/225-8550 or visit www.irishchildrensprogram.com.