WHAT STARTED out for Richard and Erin Hayden as a journey to the homeland of their ancestors has culminated three years later into using their home to contribute to peace in Northern Ireland.
For six weeks this summer, the Haydens, of Oakland Mills, are a host family to two teen-agers from Northern Ireland, one Roman Catholic and one Protestant, as part of the Children's Friendship Project for Northern Ireland.
In 1997, the Haydens traveled to the country. "The IRA [Irish Republican Army] had stopped bombing," Richard Hayden said. "It was before the marching season. There were a number of factors that made it seem like a good time to go to Northern Ireland."
But the couple's time there was not without incident.
"We were in Belfast when a bomb went off," Hayden said.
While only one man, who was reported to be one of those responsible for the bombing, was mildly injured, the event had its impact on Hayden and his wife.
He returned from his trip thinking, "Somebody needs to do something."
The Children's Friendship Project is an annual program pairing Protestant and Catholic teens there with host families in America for six weeks to help bridge gaps and promote interaction between the two groups in neutral territory and, in turn, to help prevent violence.
The Haydens' church, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church - which meets at the Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake interfaith centers - has been a sponsor for 10 years, encouraging members to be hosts of teens and paying the teens' airfares.
When Erin Hayden retired from her job as a high school librarian in Prince George's County this year, the couple knew the time was right for them to volunteer.
For the past month, Karina Hassan and Lisa Thorpe - both 17 and from the small farming town of Limavady - have shared a bedroom in the Hayden home.
Sharing sleeping quarters is a requirement of the program. Proximity is the key.
"I'm having to learn to live with somebody that I hardly knew before," said Lisa, who is Protestant. "I'm having to learn to get on with her. I have to respect her space and respect her opinions."
"The situation over there is somewhat analogous to the way it used to be here [in America] between blacks and whites in the 1930s," said Tom McCarthy, the program's vice president and a member of St. John the Evangelist. "In many parts of Northern Ireland, the kids lead very different lives: The kids go to different schools, they're in different Scout troops, different soccer leagues, live in different neighborhoods."
Lisa believes many Americans have misconceptions about life in Northern Ireland. "It's perfectly safe to walk down the street in Belfast," she said. "It's the same as maybe walking down the street in Washington. There's going to be crime anywhere."
Karina agrees. "The younger Catholics and Protestants fight amongst themselves about religion," she said. But for the most part, she said, it's "just name-calling."
"There's a Protestant school right beside ours, and a lot of my friends who live in my neighborhood are Protestant," said Karina, who attends a public school in Limavady, which is all Catholic.
During their stay, the teens have volunteered at the Franciscan Center in Baltimore, which provides services for low-income people, and spent time with several of the Haydens' neighbors, church members and friends.
"We've met a girl from Kenya," Lisa said. "Her country has problems as well. Only, her country's problem is a lack of water. We should realize how lucky we are. We shouldn't be fighting about silly things when there're people who both of us can help."
Before coming to America, Lisa and Karina participated in preparatory discussions with other program participants. Lisa was moved by their replies to the question, "Do you believe there will be peace in Northern Ireland?"
"The numbers that actually did think there would be peace were small, and that shocked me," Lisa said. "If we can change the opinion of one person back home, they can change the opinion of one person. Hopefully, when we get back we can get involved with other people and tell everybody about our experiences, and the chain will continue."
Information about the Children's Friendship Project for Northern Ireland: 410-744-0102 or visit the group's Web site at www.cfpni.org.
Author Carolyn Greene will teach "Plotting Popular Fiction" at the Annual Writers Workshop from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 19 at the east Columbia library, 6600 Cradlerock Way.
Greene will share her writing methods. Her latest novel, "Marrying Mr. Right," was released by Harlequin Romance last year. A question-and-answer session will follow the talk.
The cost is $50. Registration is required.
Information: 410-313-7700 or 410-486-6178.