By Kevin Brady
A major documentary on the impact of Project Children, a charity that has brought thousands of Catholic and Protestant youngsters to America for a break from Northern Ireland’s Troubles, will hit the big screen in the U.S. and Ireland this year if filmmakers can raise enough funds to finish the film.
Originally planned as a small documentary for BBC Northern Ireland, the film’s producers believe the story has such a potential appeal to a wider audience that they now plan to create a feature-length film.
Documenting the program’s growth seemed an overwhelming task at first, said producer/director Des Henderson of Alley Cat TV, an award-winning independent film production company based in Derry.
The film, which Henderson hopes to screen at film festivals towards the end of the year, is supported by BBC and Northern Ireland Screen (the same group backs “Game Of Thrones”) and has an international distribution deal in place.
What they don’t have are funds to finish the film.
“This is our final push to raise funds to finish the film to the standard we think the story deserves,” said Henderson.
Producers have launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com to help finish the project.
They hope the campaign will spread the word about the film to the wider Project Children community and raise some much-needed cash.
“We have always thought of this as a big film, as a feature documentary, unfortunately with that goes crazy finance and we need to act fast so we are,” Henderson said.
The Kickstarter.com campaign is trying to raise $220,000 and it went live on April 13. Search for “Project Children” on the site or follow the link www.kickstarter.com/profile/projectchildren
Donors will have a chance to see some of their own stories on the big screen through links on the site that allow host families and Project Children alumni to upload videos of themselves talking about their experiences.
There are also “all sorts of rewards built in to the campaign that people can buy in return for a donation to the film,” Henderson said.
These include rights to stream the finished film online to prints, t-shirts, an associate producer credit in the film, and tickets to the premiere as well as a chance to meet with Denis and the film’s producers and director.
Project Children was founded in 1975 during the height of The Troubles when Denis Mulcahy, his brother, Pat, Duke Hoffman and a few friends sat around a table in Greenwood Lake, a small town in upstate New York, lamenting the lives of youngsters growing up on the violent streets of Belfast.
The Mulcahy brothers had grown up in County Cork and immigrated to New York where they joined the New York Police Department.
Determined to do something to help, they held a fundraiser at the local American Legion post, raising $1,600 to bring six youngsters, three Catholic and three Protestant, to Greenwood Lake, for a six-week vacation away from the bombs and bullets.
“It was amazing the amount of young kids that were getting hurt getting hit by plastic bullets. There was a great need to get kids out of Northern Ireland at that time,” said Denis, a former New York City bomb squad detective who would go on to became the reluctant face of the program.
“So we came up with this idea that bringing these kids out might have some kind of effect on them.”
Lauded by presidents, prime ministers and movie stars, the program expanded across the U.S in the years that followed, flying more than 23,000 children across the Atlantic to stay with 16,000 host families in the U.S.
The program was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Project Children smoothed the way for the peace process in Northern Ireland before there was a peace process in Northern Ireland,” said Congressman Joe Crowley.
“There were a lot of grudges being built on that shed blood (during The Troubles) and he (Denis Mulcahy) knew then that it was the right thing to do for the children and he knew then that if he did it enough he would not only save some individual lives and create some different futures but it might move the country,” said former President Bill Clinton in an interview for the film.
“He would probably never admit it. He was just a good man doing a good thing to help children.”
Henderson’s former teacher, Barry Lynch, first planted the idea for the film.
“Barry, who was basically responsible for me perusing a career in television, called me and starts telling me the story of Project Children and Denis,” Henderson said.
Lynch had done some fundraising for the charity.
“The story was incredible. I never knew any of it. I assumed Project Children was a church or governmental organization. I never had any idea of the backstory.”
Pat Mulcahy said that although some did not want Project Children to succeed in the beginning, its success in opening dialogue is an enduring legacy.
“Isn’t it better to light a penny candle than curse the darkness and when you light 23,000 penny candles you have a massive light,” Mulcahy said.
A trailer for the fledgling film is available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BP8OfL3DB-o).
Search for “Project Children Documentary” on the site to watch the five-minute preview.
Although Project Children is entering its final year, the program’s internship program, which sees Northern Ireland students spend eight weeks in the U.S. gaining experience in their field of study, will continue.
Editor’s Note: Reporter Kevin Brady was one of the first six children involved in the Project Children program. Brady started his career in journalism at the Irish Echo and today works as a reporter in Florida.