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Text: Alan Smith and Dominic Murray ... Page Design: John Hughes

The Chance of a Lifetime, An Evaluation of Project Children frontispiece

The Chance of a Lifetime, An Evaluation of Project Children

by Alan Smith and Dominic Murray
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1993
ISBN 1 87120 649 9
Paperback 68pp £4.00

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The Chance of a Lifetime
An Evaluation of Project Children

by Alan Smith and Dominic Murray

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster



Previous Research

Project Children

Data collection

Perceptions of the programme


How the programme operates


The pilot study children


The parents in Northern Ireland


The host parents in the United States


The organisational perspective


Project Children supporters

Conclusions, recommendations and further research

Appendix 1 - the research schedule

Appendix 2 - guidelines for selecting children

Appendix 3 - procedures for selecting host families

Appendix 4 - questionnaire to host family referees



Most holiday schemes for children from Northern Ireland originated in the 1970s. The early emphasis was to provide children from 'troubled areas' with an opportunity to spend the school holidays in a more peaceful environment. Early schemes were based in Northern Ireland, but soon programmes began operating to England, the Republic of Ireland and Europe. Images of children caught up in the conflict appeared on television screens throughout the world and the first schemes in the United States appeared in the mid-70s.

Emphasis on providing relief from the conflict remains an element in the thinking behind most programmes, although riots and street violence are now less prominent features of 'the troubles'. The aims of participating organisations have evolved over the past twenty years and some have taken on additional emphases, usually reflected in the criteria which are applied in selecting children. Some organisations operate from a church base and could be construed as having missionary or ecumenical aims; others emphasise a desire to work with children from economically or socially deprived backgrounds: some wish to work with children who have been directly affected by violence; most wish to involve both Catholic and Protestant children, some simply as a matter of course, but increasingly because of a conscious desire to contribute to a process of reconciliation between the two main communities in Northern Ireland.

The overall picture is somewhat fragmented, reflecting the development of disparate projects, relatively isolated from one another. The projects themselves could not operate without high levels of energy, enthusiasm and voluntary commitment from individuals within Northern Ireland and the destination countries.

Grant-aid for such programmes has been available from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) since 1975, although not all organisations in the field apply for support. The level of grant-aid has remained fairly constant over the past four years. During 1991-2, the Department of Education provided approximately 140,000 toward 106 programmes involving 3,200 children - over half of these were programmes within Northern Ireland. Grant-aid was provided for 15 programmes which sent a total of 500 children to the United States.

The earliest programme in the United States was based in Minnesota and schemes now operate to most States. A considerable number are based on the east coast perhaps because it is there that the concentration of Irish-American communities is greatest. In 1992, the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust facilitated a conference for representatives from over 20 different organisations involved in bringing children to the United States. This provided a rare opportunity for representatives to discuss programme aims and share information about operating procedures and the age-groups involved. Altogether programmes to the United States involve nearly 2,000 children per year (almost 1 per cent of the school going population). Assuming that different children are involved each year, this means that up to 10 per cent of the current generation of schoolchildren have spent time in the United States on one of these programmes.

Programmes vary greatly in terms of the number of children involved. The smallest brings just four each year, but most operate within a range of 10-50 children. The largest is an organisation known as Project Children which brings approximately 900 children from Northern Ireland to the United States each summer. This evaluation concerns a small part of the Project Children programme which brought twenty children, aged 10-13 years old, to the Washington D.C. area for six weeks during the summer of 1992.

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Conclusions, recommendations and further research

This evaluation has sought to generate an holistic view of the Project Children programme by soliciting a wide range of perceptions from participants and observers. Throughout the process it has become possible to focus progressively on the issues which seem most pertinent to the programme's future development. These are identified below under the headings: communication: religious and cross-community issues: and educational issues.

1. Communication

Since its inception in 1975, Project Children has become a very large organisation. This in itself is likely to make communication between the different elements quite complex, all the more so since Project Children does not employ even one full-time salaried member of staff. Overall the organisation seems to exist as a number of well-organised, yet relatively isolated groups. It may prove beneficial if some thought were to be given to the creation of a post such as an information officer who might draw all the various strands together. Such a resource would be particularly useful in providing those individuals involved on opposite sides of the Atlantic with insights into how things work at the 'other end'. On the other hand, the degree to which communication structures have been constructed and refined is quite impressive. Even so the evaluation highlighted a few areas which merit closer attention:

a) Parents in Northern Ireland

Parents in Northern Ireland experience significant levels of anxiety which are caused by a lack of communication and contact with prospective host parents in the United States prior to their child's departure. These fears might be allayed if opportunities were afforded them to meet with parents who had had children participate in previous years. This could be arranged at the first 'get-to-together session'.

b) Host families in the United States

There exists a degree of ignorance, among many host families with regard to the situation in Northern Ireland. the environment from which the children come. and the personal biographies of the children. They made the suggestion that if they knew more, they could do more. Perhaps the first two discrepancies of information could be ameliorated by the creation of an information video which portrays life in Northern Ireland in general and the pilot children's locality in particular. Although the acquisition of more personal details of children is an obvious and real need for host families. people may prove reticent to provide it and important principles of confidentiality' are involved. In addition. there may be the danger that such prior information will precipitate the operation of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. with potentially 'difficult' or 'troublesome' children causing 'appropriate' strategies being drawn up in advance by host families. The process might be facilitated however if it were made clear that such information would be retained at coordinator level only.

c) The children

The channels of communication which are available for the children to communicate their concerns or problems whilst in the United States are generally fine. However this may not be the case if the perceived problem lies with the host family and it would be prudent to identify additional channels of communication for the child should this be the case. More use might be made of the 'big buddy' system in this context, outings could be arranged which are attended by children and big buddies only. Also the children might retain the phone number of their assigned big buddy. Both of these strategies will provide a further, and perhaps vital, conduit of communication to and from the children.

2. Religious and Cross-community issues

Given the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland it is no surprise that a programme which draws children from the Catholic and Protestant communities should encounter sensitivities concerning cross-community aspects of the programme. Project Children is no exception in this respect and three concerns arise:

a) The placement of children

A degree of mismatch in understanding existed between the American organisers and the parents in Northern Ireland about the arrangements for placing children with host families. In Northern Ireland the parents were aware that both Catholic and Protestant children take part in the programme, but some parents were under the impression that their child would be staying with a family of the same religion when this was not the case. Whilst some parents welcomed the opportunity for their child to stay with a family of a different religion, this was not the wish of all parents. The programme would benefit from a clearer statement from project personnel to parents in Ireland which outlines the principles involved in the placement of children. One possibility is an unambiguous statement that the policy of Project Children is to place children, where possible, with families of a different religion. In this situation parents have a choice about whether their child should participate in the programme. Administratively it is more straightforward and it is consistent with Project Children director's view that choices about placement should remain with the American hosts. The view was also put that Project Children should accommodate parents who wish their child to be hosted by co-religionists. The argument is that these children appear to have more limited opportunities to mix in their home environment and might benefit most from contact with a multicultural environment in the United States. This is an important though complex area and a range of possibilities need to be considered before the principles which the organisation uses for the placement of children are finalized.

b) Arrangements for Sunday worship

However the issue about placement of children becomes clarified, there will still be a related issue about how attendance at Sunday worship should be handled. At present parents in Northern Ireland have limited opportunity to express their opinion about what provision (if any) is made for Sunday worship whilst their child is in the United States. For many this seems to cause little concern, but for a few it may be crucial (for example, one child was reluctant to attend a different church because she had been taught that it would be a mortal sin). It seems important that the parent and host families should have an opportunity to discuss what arrangements are suitable. The situation where the host family has care of two children of different religions seems one which needs particularly thoughtful handling.

c) Participation by both communities in Northern Ireland

A broader issue is related to the overall balance between Catholic and Protestant children who participate in the Project Children programme. In terms of any aspiration to involve children on a cross-community basis, the introduction of the pilot programme has increased the likelihood that children will be drawn in equal numbers from the two main traditions in Northern Ireland because recruitment is linked into the system of de facto 'segregated' schools. Whilst there is clearly a balance within the pilot programme, the balance of participants within the overall programme may also be important, particularly in terms of public perception within Northern Ireland and if a case is being put to attract public funds. Questions therefore arise about the extent to which the principles of the pilot should apply to the overall programme and the implications that might have for recruitment and practice.

3. Educational issues

The pilot program me is significant in that it has demonstrated a concern on the part of Project Children to develop closer contact with schools in Northern Ireland. This commitment obviously raises some constructive questions about future practice and how the programme offered by Project Children might complement experiences offered by the schools as part of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and the school curriculum. Generally speaking those involved with the pilot programme on both sides of the Atlantic saw this as an encouraging and helpful development which should be pursued further. The evaluation highlighted a number of points within this positive climate:

a) EMU and the criteria for selecting children

As the Project Children programme moves into a closer relationship with the work of schools in Northern Ireland it will become clear that Education for Mutual Understanding is an educational initiative which is not directed solely at children from disadvantaged circumstances. In this respect it may become less appropriate for the Project Children selection criteria to focus on this so strongly since this may imply an association between social disadvantage and intolerance in Northern Ireland which is questionable.

b) The pilot programme and the children back in school

An examination of the impact of the pilot programme on the children from a psychological perspective was beyond the remit of this evaluation. However, teachers and parents did comment on changes they perceived from observing the children in the home and school environments during the six months following their return to Northern Ireland. Commonly reported changes were 'increased levels of self-confidence', more conscientious about schoolwork' and 'greater maturity'. The most encouraging aspect of reported change appears to be in the area of motivation to sustain cross-community friendships. The fact that the children were drawn from schools in the same locality seems to have increased the possibilities for longer term friendships. It was reported that children who had shared time together in the United States actively sought out each other when schools came together for joint activities as part of Education for Mutual Understanding. The school principals remarked how the level of commitment to maintaining the relationship with a peer in 'the other' school, was noticeably greater amongst 'Project Children' than relationships which had been encouraged through school generated programmes

c) The pilot programme and parental involvement

An impressive feature of the Project Children pilot programme was that it generated a greater degree of parental involvement than other activities organised by the schools to promote Education for Mutual Understanding. This was particularly noticeable in the follow-up meetings and parents commented favourably on the opportunity which the programme provided for adults to mix on a cross-community basis. It is clear that the pilot programme provides a social context which draws the parents in more effectively than curriculum-based programmes might. This in itself is a significant achievement as there are relatively few examples of school-based EMU programmes in Northern Ireland which succeed in generating sustained interaction between parents on a cross-community basis. School principals saw this as a significant and unique feature of the pilot programme.

d) The pilot programme and continuity of experience

The pilot programme appears to have tapped into two important networks which are important for the support and sustenance of cross-community friendships between children once they return to Northern Ireland. These support networks are the home, where parental involvement in the programme encourages parents to support longer-term contact, and the school, which can provide activities that allow cross-community contacts to be maintained. The Project Children experience provides a common focus which initially draws together the child, the parents and the schools. It is possible that the interactions between these agencies under the auspices of Project Children present the child with mutually reinforcing networks to legitimise the establishment of cross-community friendships. The child experiences continuity in the message received from the home, school and the wider world. If this is the case, then it would be worth considering how such continuity in experience can be enhanced. For example, it raises questions about how follow-up activities might best be sustained as the children move from primary to secondary school relatively soon after their return to Northern Ireland.

Another possibility is that closer attention is given to other community-based experiences which might be provided for the children once they return from the United States. For example, participants in the programme suggest that part of Project Childrens appeal is that it takes the children away from an environment which has little organised activity for young people during the two-month summer vacation from school. This suggests there is some merit in exploring the possibilities for 'summer camp' type programmes for children based in Northern Ireland, providing further continuity of experience and a natural extension to the visit to America. Organised on a cross-community basis these might provide a further network to sustain newly-established friendships.

These latter conjectures raise questions about the level of organisation which is possible or desirable in Northern Ireland as part of the Project Children programme. Now that the American organisationers have taken the initiative to establish closer working relationships with schools, there is a related issue about what sort of infrastructure is needed in Northern Ireland to sustain expectations of long-term continuity. This issue is complex, but fundamental to future development. It needs to be considered carefully in light of available resources and Project Childrens existing commitment to a voluntary ethos.


The following are specific recommendations concerning procedural issues related to future programme development:

  1. Establish contact between the US host families and the parents in Northern Ireland much earlier in the annual programme cycle.

  2. Improve orientation of US host families to circumstances in Northern Ireland, for example, produce a video which portrays life in the local community (possibly created out of a joint project by the schools).

  3. Facilitate meetings between previous participants as part of the induction process for prospective parents in Northern Ireland and new host families in the United States

  4. Build in additional channels of communication and support for children should they find themselves in difficult circumstances with the host family, for example, by consolidating the 'big buddy' befriending system.

  5. Establish greater clarity concerning the principles which Project Children operates in the placement of children and communicate these in an unambiguous way to parents in Northern Ireland.

  6. Create a process which facilitates an agreement between the host family and parents in Northern Ireland concerning arrangements for Sunday worship.

  7. Reconsider the weighting between selection criteria concerning social disadvantage and programme aims to promote Education for Mutual Understanding.

  8. Consider how compatible the balance between Catholic and Protestant children within the overall programme is with pilot programme aims.

  9. Explore how a support network of parents in Northern Ireland might be consolidated and sustained in the long term, for example; reunions, social events for past participants or a newsletter.

  10. Consider how there might be greater continuity of experience between the United States and Northern Ireland, for example, the establishment of a Project Children summer camp in Northern Ireland.

  11. Consider how useful it might be to appoint a full-time coordinator to facilitate communication within the organisation and undertake a developmental role concerning future practice.

It is one of the occupational hazards of any evaluation that, too often, because of a perceived expectation to produce recommendations, there is a tendency to focus on the weaknesses of the programme being studied while its strengths are taken as read. This is a particular danger in studying an initiative of the magnitude of Project Children which thrives on the diversity of perceptions and aspirations within it. It should be stated categorically that such diversity exists in the context of a much stronger unity of purpose. This purpose arises out of a shared commitment to do something for the children who have been affected by the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The Project Children host families are not confined to those with Irish ancestry. It is difficult to articulate the degree of energy and dynamism of participants in America and the sense of empathy of ordinary people there with a problem which might otherwise be both geographically distant and ideologically complex. Literally thousands of children have been given an opportunity to broaden their experience within another culture through the goodwill of American families. Organisers and host families are sincere in their desire to provide relief from the conflict in Northern Ireland, "one child at a time". Such generosity of spirit is characteristic of those involved with Project Children.

Future research

No single piece of research or evaluation can address adequately the many dimensions of the Project Children programme. Each can address only a limited number of issues and different parts of the overall picture will be illuminated depending on the methods used. The pervading view of this evaluation is that the establishment of the pilot programme represents a highly positive move in terms of programme development. Future questions will relate to what elements of the pilot should be retained and consolidated and the extent to which the overall Project Children programme takes on the features of the pilot. Further research therefore is more likely to be concerned with the impact of the programme in longitudinal terms. The following represent three slightly different facets of this longitudinal theme:

  • The 'pilot children' and longer term friendship patterns

    This evaluation suggests that the pilot programme children, recruited through schools in the same locality, were highly motivated to sustain cross-community friendships established during Project Children These friendships were supported during the six-month period after their return to Northern Ireland by two key networks: parental involvement in follow-up meetings and joint activities facilitated by the schools. In the formal sense the programme ends after six months, but it would seem sensible to monitor what level of contact is sustained between children and parents in the longer term.

  • Pilot children and children in the wider programme

    The pilot programme had a number of distinguishing features: children were recruited through schools, there were joint activities organised by the schools before and after the visit to America and parents were involved. The two pilot programmes which operated in 1992 involved 40 children out of nearly 900 who went to the United States with Project Children. Follow-up research which contrasts the pilot childrens' experience with children who were not recruited through the schools might illuminate benefits derived from closer links with schools.

  • What happens to project children in the long term?

    There was considerable interest in the United States in discovering what happens to Project Children participants in the long term and how they perceive the impact of their experience in America in later life. Although programmes have been in operation for nearly twenty years there has been no structured research of the kind which tracks the progress of former participants and this is a significant omission from the literature.

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