By Claudia Mathis
In 1980, Kathleen Kelly, an immigrant from Wicklow, Ireland, now living in Syracuse, pondered what she could do to help the people in Northern Ireland who were affected by the ongoing ethnic and political conflict between their country and the Republic of Ireland.
“I prayed to the Holy Spirit,” she said, in her lilting Irish brogue. She also asked her pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse, Father Alfred Nortz, for advice. He told her, “You are going to help your own.”
After researching ways in which she could help the Northern Irish peace process, she contacted Denis Mulcahy, chairman of Project Children, based in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. The program brings as many children as possible to the U.S. for the month of July, Northern Ireland’s “marching season,” when Protestant Orange Order parades take place. They are held to commemorate William of Orange’s victory in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The conquest secured the Protestant Ascendancy and British rule in Ireland.
Mulcahy founded the project in 1975, along with the assistance of his brother Pat. As immigrants from County Cork, Ireland, they wanted to provide a reprieve to the children who were caught up in the fighting and tension of Ireland. That summer they brought six children — three Protestants and three Catholics — from Northern Ireland to their home in Greenwood Lake. They wanted to show the children from the two denominations that they could live with one another and like each other.
After hearing about it, Kelly felt it was her mission to give young people in Northern Ireland a break and at the same time, aid the county’s peace effort.
Since then, as coordinator of the Central New York chapter of Project Children, Kelly and her assistant Roxanne Compoli have brought close to 7,000 children, aged 10 to 14, to the Central New York area. Project Children’s headquarters in Greenwood Lake oversees Kelly’s chapter.
“I sincerely believe that God has been beside her throughout the years, giving her the strength, patience and wisdom needed to carry on this great mission for His children,” said Compoli. “Indeed, her prayers have been answered.”
This summer, families in Central New York hosted 42 children. Anyone can host a child and the only expenses are room, board and activities. Kelly said that the cost of transportation and insurance for each child is $950, which is raised by the organization through fundraisers such as golf tournaments and raffles.
Kelly said the community’s welcoming response and charity to the Irish visitors has been heartening. The Sisters of St. Francis hosted a family picnic for the children and their families, as they do every year, at Alverna Heights in Fayetteville. Local dentists and doctors donated their services to the children. People also lent bicycles to the young people.
Kelly said the children most enjoy being outdoors and swimming. Back in Ireland, they spend much of their time indoors due to the political fighting in their villages.
Kelly encourages the Irish children to keep a journal and take photos of their stay in Central New York. She hopes that when the children arrive back in Ireland and share what their experience was like, they will serve as good ambassadors.
Sandy and Mike Reed of Fabius, parents of two, hosted an Irish boy and girl this summer. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world,” said Sandy. “I really enjoyed sitting at the dinner table talking — all six of us,” said Sandy.
The family also visited several beaches and Herkimer Diamond Mines.
Sandy said that after listening to the children talk about their lives in Ireland, her family began to value their freedom. “We began to appreciate that we don’t have that strife here,” she said.
Sandy said that she feels her family was given a gift by having the Irish children stay with them. “They have touched our hearts,”
Sandy said. “When they left, a little bit of my heart left with them.”
Gwen and Mike Barbato of Cortland hosted two 11-year-old boys this year. “I think I got more out of it than they did,” remarked Gwen. “It was an incredible experience.”
She recounted some of the things the boys had told them about their living conditions in Ireland. One of the children had found a bomb in his neighborhood the week before they left and some of their cousins had been killed.
Gwen, an Episcopalian, and Mike, a Catholic, took the boys to each of their places of worship. “They experienced life where religion was not an issue,” said Gwen. “It was enlightening to us. We were able to show them a life that is free of conflict.”
Kelly said that as long as Mulcahy keeps the program going, she would continue to bring children to Central New York. “It’s a chance of a lifetime for them,” she said. “And it makes me feel that God is working through me.”
For more information, contact Kelly at (315) 474-2296.