MINNEAPOLIS - When England's Queen Elizabeth shook hands in June with a former commander of the Irish Republican Army, the world took note.
Leslie Busby believes the seeds for that meeting were planted 40 years ago in Minnesota.
Busby, a former Belfast police commander, has spent much of the past four decades helping bring children from Northern Ireland for month-and-a-half summer holidays with host families in the upper Midwest of the United States.
"There's no doubt this played a role," said Busby about the historic handshake. "It was getting children out of Belfast. It was exposing them to how people of different religions got along together in peace."
The Children's Program of Northern Ireland traces its roots back to 1973. At the height of the violence between Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants, Sarah Hughes, the mother of a 9-year-old boy named David, envisioned a summer escape for her son and others like him.
Hughes wrote a letter she sent to 30 American newspapers. "We wish to appeal to our American friends to open their doors as a holiday to our children," she penned.
A columnist for the Fargo Forum reprinted part of the letter which was then read by Ruth LeRud, a mother and farm wife, from Twin Valley, Minnesota who wrote to Hughes and agreed to take in her son.
"I didn't mind having another child in the house, I mean, it would be kind of fun," recalled LeRud," now 90 and still living in Twin Valley.
Forty years later nearly 7000 children have landed in Minnesota, continuing even as the violence in Northern Ireland has subsided.
The focus now is breaking down the separation that still exists in Northern Ireland. Most Catholics and Protestants live in segregated neighborhoods and for the most part their children attend segregated schools.
Over the years, Catholic and Protestant children have been recruited in equal numbers, then paired with families of the opposite religion.
"We are trying to break down the whole idea that we still need to live separately," says Marie Dorrian, who teaches first and second graders in Northern Ireland. She says Minnesota provides a live, working model. "The communities they live in, they may have Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, nobody is asked, nobody cares because kids are kids and neighbors in America."
Timothy Lynch, a retired St. Paul police commander, saw the separation himself on a visit to Northern Ireland, when he stopped with one of his hosts at a grocery store. "There was Catholic butter and Protestant butter there was Catholic and Protestant milk and Catholic bead and Protestant bread."
Now the Minnesota chairman of the CPNI, he's hoping the program helps Irish children learn that "kids are kids the whole world over."
The arrangement seems to working quite nicely for Kyle Black, who is back for a second summer with his Minnesota host family.
As a protestant, Kyle admits it felt a bit strange at first to attend Catholic church services with his host family. His host mom, Colleen Thoresen, says it's been a good learning experience for her whole family - Kyle included. "So they go back and proclaim that we can all just get along."
It's a lesson started on the northern plains of Minnesota 40 years ago with Ruth LeRud and a visiting nine-year-old boy named David who recently sat down with Ruth again in a Skype conversation arranged by KARE 11.
Now 48 and living in Belfast, David Hughes shared memories with Ruth of life on the farm with the LeRud family.
"Oh I know one thing you didn't like: picking weeds in the garden," Ruth reminded him.
"Oh I didn't like doing that, but you only have to do it a couple days, you know," retorted David as Ruth laughed.
His Irish mother, passed away about a year-and-a-half ago. His American mom is still with him on the other side of the ocean.
"I love you David," she tells him.
"I love you too Ruth"
Note: A 40th year celebration and fundraiser for the Children's Program of Northern Ireland will be held at O'Gara's (164 N Snelling Ave - St Paul) on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 starting at 7 p.m.
(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)