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The following article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, April 8, 2007:

Lifeline for N. Ireland’s children
In Ireland, it’s known as the Troubles - the violence and prejudice in Northern Ireland that pits Catholics and Republicans against Protestants and Loyalists. But for the children of Northern Ireland, especially those from Belfast, it’s known by a different name.  

Life.

A brief respite comes for a few weeks each summer when families such as West Deptford’s Marie and Phil Hempsey welcome these children, Catholic and Protestant, into their homes and hearts as participants in Project Children.

The Hempseys have never traveled to Northern Ireland, but this family has had an impact on its people.

Question: Can you give us the background of Project Children?

Marie Hempsey: It was started in 1975 by Denis Mulcahy, a New York City police officer and Irishman who immigrated to New York from his home in County Cork. In the ‘70s, the Troubles were at their height - bombs, snipers, kids losing their parents and in danger themselves. Mulcahy decided to get kids out. He started with six kids.

Q: How many have been brought over to date?

Marie Hempsey: Around 15,000.  

Q: How did your family get involved?

Marie Hempsey: Divine intervention! Eight years ago, we were at the Irish festival in Gloucester. Papers were blowing down the street. The woman chasing them was Sister Francis Kirk, the local coordinator for Project Children. We started talking.

Phil Hempsey: It took some string pulling because Sister thought we had our hands full with our four kids . . . and another on the way. They assigned us one child.

Q: And how many have you had since?

Marie Hempsey: We’ve hosted 16 so far, and four years ago when Sister Francis had a stroke, she asked me to take over as coordinator.

Q: How do your children and the kids from Northern Ireland get along?

Phil Hempsey: Our kids range in age from 21 to 11, so the kids we host always have someone around their age to pal around with. Both sides become close, consider the other part of their family and keep in touch well past their time together.

Q: Since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Accord in 1998, some people think that the Troubles are over. Have any of the children’s stories really painted a picture of how bad things still are?

Marie Hempsey: We hosted two sisters, Chloe and Rebecca McKernan. To get to their elementary school, Holy Cross, which is a girls’ Catholic school, they had to walk down a street that people call the gauntlet. The street has two levels and Protestants would stand on the higher level and scream at the girls, insult them and throw bottles full of urine. Some people called them Finnian whores.  

Phil Hempsey: Chloe was in the second grade. Rebecca was in kindergarten. We’ve seen video.

Q: Is the main mission of Project Children to get these kids away from the violence and prejudice, or to introduce them to children that they were raised to hate?

Marie Hempsey: To get them away from the violence. The hatred goes deep - hundreds and hundreds of years deep. It’ll take a generation that is removed, who hasn’t lost a parent or had one jailed by the Troubles, to cause them to end. Sometimes, the children do meet kids from the other side here in the States. Friendships do happen. Understandings do happen. But giving these kids a safe way to spend the summer is our main goal.

Phil Hempsey: And to keep them away from the recruiters. Extremists on both sides recruit children during the summer, it’s easier to target kids.

Q: Where do the funds come from to make Project Children possible?

Marie Hempsey: Donations. All the money goes toward getting the children over. Everybody who is involved is a volunteer. Nobody is paid. One of the big events we do in the Southern Jersey/Philadelphia area is a beef and beer at the Ancient Order of Hibernians in National Park.

Phil Hempsey: It’s April 14. Three Irish bands have donated their time to play - the Shantys, Bare Knuckle Boxers, and the Broken Shillelaghs. We‘re also raffling off a trip to Ireland.

Q: What do families who would like to host a child need to know?

Marie Hempsey: I want people to know that you don’t have to be Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Anybody is encouraged to host a child. Also, you don’t have to be rich. People think that if you host a child from another country, you have to take them to Disney World. You don’t. The expense is minimal. They don’t need Disney World, they need a soccer ball, to learn how to play baseball - and someone to do it with in a safe environment.

  - Kerry O‘Connor



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