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Richard E. Hess: I’m grateful my parents opened a door to the world

I did not intend this to be a story about my parents, but I’m acutely aware that many great memories have a hidden source just out of view.

Forty years ago, in 1975, my parents were host parents for the inaugural Belfast Summer Relief Program, which would pair Protestant and Catholic youth from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with host families in Buffalo. The goal was to provide the children with a carefree summer away from political and religious tension and enable the guests to gain an entirely new perspective. I was 14. I just wanted to have a fun summer.

My family lived a simple life in Kenmore, as simple as a family with six children could muster. We ranged in age from 8 to 20, and we were thrilled to welcome Noel Kiernan for six weeks, the cutest 11-year-old with the most intriguing brogue. He had never traveled so far alone, nor been away from his family for so long. His parents must have taken a deep breath as they put him on an airplane for six weeks away from home with strangers.

Noel adapted with apparent ease and innocence, eager to engage with us and with our lives. But now, as an adult, I know he must have battled homesickness, loneliness and culture confusion. He always seemed to be smiling. He always engaged.

We had a 4-foot-deep above-ground swimming pool nestled into our tiny Kenmore backyard, and Noel overcame his fear of water and learned to swim that summer. My grandfather bought Noel a bicycle and he learned to ride a bike. It had a banana seat and he used to ride it up and down the street endlessly. He attended the two-week-long Kenmore Summer Day Camp with my two younger brothers, and he built things and made things and played and swam without fear. We loved going to Niagara Falls.

Noel was interested in all things military, and he found an ally in my father, who collected war medals and made military models. Noel attended Boy Scout Camp, and proudly participated in the American rituals of scouting. He didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

I have kept in touch with Noel for the past 40 years. I visited him at his home in County Cavan in Ireland last month, my fourth visit to him in Ireland in four decades. I watched him in amazement during his early career as an animator, most notably working on the animated film “An American Tail.” He is an amazing father, with amazing children and a smart and lively wife, and I know that his visit to Buffalo helped make a difference in the man he has become.

As I hear of fear and hostility toward immigrants, a prejudice against those we deem “the other,” I am so grateful that my parents opened a door for me, a door to the world, to connecting with others who are different. They instilled a love of travel, of going through open doors in other lands and welcoming others when they arrive at your door.

My father kept a journal for Noel that summer, a memory book that he sent home to Ireland. I saw entries from it this summer, 40 years later, and was struck by a phrase he wrote: “Time literally ran out.”

No it didn’t, Dad. Noel and I raised a glass of Irish whiskey to you and Mom and Buffalo and the Belfast Summer Relief Program last month. Time has been kind.