Each summer since 1998, Frank Griffin and his wife have hosted at least on Irish child each summer to expose them to a new culture, a new family and the opportunity to communicate with people they might not be able to speak with at home.
The program started in 1984, when a Portland priest decided to get kids out of Belfast, Ireland in July, when tensions are high and there are many marches. After the 1994 peace accords, some of the violence quieted down, according to Griffin. The issues in Ireland are religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. For this teens, going into the opposite neighborhood could lead to death.
The program now chooses teens from Northern Ireland who have leadership potential and the potential for strong conflict resolution, said Griffin. Through the program, “the teens are prepared to work with someone they don’t necessarily like, but have to work with,” he added.
The differences between Irish culture and American culture are significant. The Irish are about 30 years behind where we are now, Griffin said. In Ireland, the teens have the freedom to wander and parents don’t keep track of them. They are also dictatorial and tell them, “We are going to do this today.” The teens are given classes on how things are done in Maine and in America.
Host families are encouraged to treat the Irish teens like a member of the family. Give them chores, make them follow household rules and don’t drive them everywhere, he said. “Immerse them into a culture that’s sort of familiar, but not familiar,” Griffin said.
The foods are different between the two countries. Most of their food is fried, here they get exposed to salads and real Mexican food.
The host families are asked to pay for events and trips when the whole family is going. If the teen is going out with other teens, they pay for themselves. Those are the only expenses for the hosts. The teens can share a room with a host sibling or can have their own room. Childless couples are also welcome to host the teens, but in that case they recommend they take two.
Griffin and his wife keep in touch with the six kids they hosted. They now take in the youth workers who keep track of the kids while they are here in the US. The program has host families from New Hampshire to Brunswick and everywhere in between.
He said that he never wants for a place to stay when he travels to Ireland because of the contacts this program has given him. They also do a February break exchange where Maine teens go to Ireland and are hosted much like in the US.
To be a host the family has to fill out an electronic application and have a home interview with one or two board members. They also require the family to sign a release so that the company can do a background check with the State Police.
Most of the teens bring Irish chocolate for their hosts and according to Griffin that is a big selling point.
Each week the group tries to get together and over July 12, the major marching day, they do a campout at Walnut Grove Campground in Alfred. While there they do workshops with the teens.
For more about the program or hosting a teen, call president Susan Schuyler at 282-3939 or email FTG@roadrunner.com or call Griffin at 892-6914. Host families are needed as soon as possible.