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'It was about friendship and an idea being planted'

By Aine Fox

Published 23/09/2016

John Cheevers (left) with Kevin Brady
John Cheevers (left) with Kevin Brady
The youngsters (John on the left) when they left for New York

Two of the first children to be flown to the United States with Project Children have spoken of the life-changing effect it had on them.

John Cheevers and Kevin Brady were among the original six young people to leave home for a summer at Greenwood Lake in New York state.

From the Old Park Road and New Lodge in Belfast respectively, the pair, with different religious backgrounds, had never met and admitted they did not have high hopes for a friendship after fighting on the journey there. But after a summer living under one roof, the pair became close and both later moved to America, remaining firm friends.

Their story is one of those featured in the documentary How To Defuse A Bomb: The Project Children Story, showing archive footage from the first moments they arrived in the US to modern-day scenes of the two reunited.

Reminiscing on his first impressions of New York, Mr Brady, now a journalist in Florida, said: "Belfast was grey, this place was in colour."

As a child he had been on the streets during riots which resulted in deaths and injuries, but getting to know someone from a nearby community in an environment away from the violence changed everything for ever, he said. "The kind of conflict taking place in Northern Ireland, part of that conflict was based on not knowing who the other side was, demonising them," he added.

"Well, it was very hard to demonise John Cheevers after I spent six weeks with him. Project Children, as much for me as it was about a friendship, it was also about an idea being planted. A seed of 'there's something more than this'."

Mr Cheevers, who lives with his family close to Greenwood Lake, said Project Children was "just a completely different experience. It changed me".

He added: "Just to have all that weight off your shoulders was amazing. I felt safe being here."

The programme took more than 20,000 children to the US through the years.

It ended in 2014, but Project Children's internship scheme, which has been running for more than two decades, still brings students out to the United States for work placement programmes each and every summer.

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