By RANDLE CHRISTIAN
COLUMBIA — Child by child, friendship by friendship, Beryl Hanvey has spent the last 14 years breaking down the barriers of hatred and violence that divide her native Belfast.
As coordinator for South Carolina’s Irish Children’s Program, she has helped over a thousand children, both Protestant and Catholic, cross the ocean to learn a simple truth about the enemy back home: They’re not so different after all.
Recently, Hanvey was honored for her work at a dinner at Rockbridge Club in Columbia. As host families and supporters from around the state looked on, Columbia Mayor Pro Tem Frannie Heizer presented Hanvey with the key to the city. Hanvey also received a letter and a certificate from Gov. David Beasley, and a plaque from the South Carolina programs in recognition of her dedication to young people and commitment to peace.
The occasion was prompted by Hanvey’s decision last summer to step down as the program’s coordinator. The demands for her job had taken their toll. “I was tired, really ill. I desperately needed help,” she said. ” I felt I couldn’t continue.”
Hanvey agreed to take the volunteer job in 1984 when she heard that South Carolina was in dire need of a coordinator for its program. She already knew firsthand how good such a program could be. When two of her boys were 11 and 13, they had participated in an Irish Children’s program in Pennsylvania. “It was a wonderful experience we could never have given them,” Hanvey said. “It was lovely getting them out of the streets and away.”
The job is not without its perils and stresses. The coordinator Hanvey replaced left because of threats made against him and his family. But the slender, soft-spoken woman signed on anyway. Since then, she and her family have endured countless threats, had cars burned, windows broken and been verbally abused. Katie Herbkersman, secretary for the Columbia Irish Children’s Program, remembers visiting the family during one particularly violent attack. “They had every window broken by rocks and petrol bombs thrown in the house,” Herbkersman said. But Hanvey and her family stood their ground. “They’re very brave people. (Beryl) faced up to those masked terrorists like you wouldn’t believe. They had these big boards they were ready to hit her with. ‘You wouldn’t hit me now would you?’ Hanvey asked. They just looked at each other, threw them down and ran off.”
While Hanvey was here to receive her awards, someone in Belfast threw a brick through the family’s minibus and released the emergency brake, causing it to ram into a tree. Her friend Noah Bradford, also of Belfast, explains the continuing hostility. “The kids she has brought over are from the most difficult areas. They would be terrorist fodder in the future, and they’re being taught to work together.”
Hanvey is not as sure her job is the sole cause of the family’s difficulties. “I’m not saying it’s because of the program. It could be because of politics,” Hanvey said. Although her family has never taken sides in the conflict, her husband, Jack, does do cross-community work geared to bringing peace to the warring factions. And she acknowledges that not everyone thinks cooperation is a worthy goal. “There’s still lots of resentment in certain areas about trying to bring children together,” Hanvey said. “There’s a minority on both sides opposing the program.”
Witnessing the attack on the Hanvey family further strengthened Herbkersman’s support for the program. “It made me realize what we were doing here in America was so right,” she said.
Doing her part to end The Troubles has devoured much of Hanvey’s time. “It a 24-hour-a-day hob,” said Carol Mercer of Columbia, who has sponsored several Irish children. “Beryl is the go-between for South Carolina families and Irish families. Irish families can’t call their kids on the phone while they’re here. Beryl’s on the phone to the states all six weeks.”
While the children were not stateside, Hanvey worked with schools and families in Belfast arranging the next round of visits and overseeing the follow-up program, MADCAP. Only South Carolina’s program offers the children the chance to continue meeting and maintaining friendships they forged during the summer once they return home. Currently, between 400 and 500 children attend the monthly get-togethers.
Hanvey’s house has became a home away from home for many South Carolina families who go to Ireland to visit the children they’ve hosted. “Her house is a hotel,” Mercer said. “People are coming and going all the time.”
While Hanvey is giving up her job as coordinator, she will continue to run the follow-up program because of the commitment she has made to give the children a place to meet their friends. “I can’t let them down,” she said. But now she won’t be carrying all of the responsibility alone. The board is looking to divide her job among three or four people.
At the dinner, testimonials and brimming eyes bespoke the respect and affection Hanvey has earned during her tenure. “If anyone can bring about peace, she can,” Herbkersman said.
“The program is very dear to my heart,” Hanvey said. “The children who come here can never ever say ‘I didn’t know there was another way.’ They’ve been taught this. They’ve practiced being friends.”