By Pierce O’Reilly
Northern Ireland Children’s Enterprise founder and chairman Don Murphy and his wife, Mary Jo, have contributed nearly $150,000 in the last year to ensure that the work of NICE continues in perpetuity.
The couple donated over $125,000 to the burgeoning foundation, and their continuing support of golf tournaments and other activities that support operating expenses approaches $25,000.
It was Don Murphy’s vision that began NICE in 1988, after having worked 10 years with the Irish Children’s Summer Program bringing children from Northern Ireland to the U.S. to enjoy a respite from The Troubles.
While violence raged on the streets of Belfast in the mid-1970s, boys and girls were able to enjoy the peace and stability of an American summer holiday. Similar to many other groups providing vacations for young people, the involvement of the program stopped at the airport. However, in 1988 Don Murphy decided that the long-term effectiveness of such a program would benefit greatly if the young people could continue to meet in Northern Ireland when they returned home.
"NICE was formed to promote peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding between the communities of Northern Ireland," Murphy said. "For many of these children living on different sides of a divided city meant they never interacted with each other."
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The plane to the U.S. was often the starting point for relationships and friendships between Catholic and Protestant children who previously had known only hatred and sectarianism.
Don and Mary Jo Murphy have been a host family in the U.S. for many years, yet they believe that the real work of NICE begins when the children return home to the North. Their vision helped finance the new residential facility in Ballycastle during the 1990s where children could for the first time continue to meet and grow together in their own environment.
Murphy is adamant that without the facilities in Belfast, NICE would not be the success it is today.
"That was the key to the success of our organization: the kids wanted to meet when they went home, but it was simply too dangerous to visit the ‘other’ neighborhoods," he said. "Our center in Ballycastle was the answer and despite several obstacles we managed to acquire the all important site and premises."
Over the last few months the programs in Ireland have gone from strength to strength. From September to December this year alone over 160 young people have taken part in different social outings.
NICE has now set itself a fund-raising foundation target of $3 million. That may seem a staggering figure, but this group of individuals is focused and determined. To date they have raised over $600,000 with the Murphy’s in the driver’s seat.
Don Murphy spent several years working in investment banking . He later set up his own company providing financial services to many of his established clients.
"Life has being good to me and my family and after visiting Northern Ireland I felt that something had to be done to encourage and support young people that grow up in such a difficult environment," he said. "The rest is history, as they say."
The foundation now works with two primary schools in polarized areas of Belfast, Andersonstown and Seymour Hill. These schools bring the young people together for trips to local places of interest. The new outlets in Belfast are used for weekend residential programs. The groups are always made up of equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants and political background is of no consequences.
"We’re always looking for volunteers and money ," Murphy said. Help is required to house the children when they arrive in the U.S. during the summer months and donations are required for the running costs of our offices and staff. Kate Cunningham is our full-time program director in New York, while we have four people employed in Northern Ireland.
You can contact NICE during working hours at (914) 666-6656 or at www.nicekids.org.