Though she describes herself as shy by nature, Marie Hempsey will do just about anything if it will benefit her favorite cause, Project Children.
She’s called local businesses to ask for donations. She’s knocked on doors and used social media to reach out to potential hosts for the kids that come over to the U.S. from violent Northern Ireland each year. She’s opened her home and her story to the press, in order to raise awareness for Project Children. She’s even rubbed elbows with Gov. Chris Christie, filling him in on her work at a dinner held last year for New Jersey’s 50 most influential Irish people.
And this year, she’s going even further out of her comfort zone. She’s been selected as the grand marshal of the annual Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day parade—the first woman ever selected.
“It’s just so like me,” Hempsey says of the trek down Mt. Holly’s High Street in a friend’s convertible on March 3. “I mean, can you imagine?” she jokes as she smiles broadly and practices her best Miss America wave.
Being grand marshal never crossed Hempsey's mind. In fact, Hempsey was supposed to recommend somebody else. “I had become friendly with the commissioner of the parade committee. We’re both part of the ‘Irish Circle,’” she explains, referring to an unofficial group of people in the area who are interested in all things Irish.
“He gave me the names of three men they were considering for the grand marshal position and asked me for a recommendation,” she says. Although the men on the list were impressive, Hempsey never got around to making a choice. Still, when she ran into her friend, she was curious about who ended up with the honor.
“I found myself sitting next to him at an event for the AOH event, and I said, 'I never got back to you. Who won?' and he turned around and said, 'You did!'" she says, adding it was a “fall off your chair” type of moment.
“I was like, get out of here!” she says.
Hempsey was floored by the honor, especially when she considers the company she was in. “The men on that list were pretty impressive, including the owner of Dublin Square who does a lot for the Irish community. Last year they had Pearce Kerr, a former political prisoner in Ireland, as grand marshal. I never thought of myself as being in that range.”
When she expressed her hesitation to the parade commissioner, he laughed off her protests. “What? You mean someone who gives all her time and puts aside her own family to bring children over from Ireland and fundraises for the cause?” he asked her.
“I told him I never thought of it that way,” Marie says. “He said, “Well, that’s how a lot of people do think about it.””
Hempsey reconsidered and accepted the offer, seeing it as another way to bring notice to her cause, Project Children, an American-Northern Ireland partnership which sponsors and hosts children from the inner cities of Northern Ireland throughout the United States each summer.
Founded in 1975 during the peak of political violence in Northern Ireland, Project Children began as one New York couple’s attempt to reach out to the children of Belfast. That summer, founder Denis Mulcahy and his wife hosted six kids—three Protestant and three Catholics—at their Greenwood Lake, NY, home. Their goals were twofold—to remove the kids from the violence boiling over that summer and to show them that they could actually live together happily.
The Hempseys have hosted a variety of children—Catholic, Protestant, boy, girl—since they first took in Sean Haughey, then 12, during the summer of 2000. Despite their already crowded household—Marie and her husband Phil have five children of their own—there’s always room for one more.
Marie chose to reflect that philosophy when selecting this year’s parade theme, a perk of being grand marshal. “Guinness is a major sponsor of the parade, and for many years the theme has been all about partying,” Hempsey says. “I asked if I could bring the theme to its religious roots.” She chose “Friendship, Charity and Christian Unity” as the 2012 parade theme.
But right now, Hempsey isn’t even thinking about her stint at the parade. She’s focused on those kids in Ireland and getting as many of them as possible to be able to come over this summer. First up is fundraising. It takes approximately $1,000 to bring a child here from Ireland. Project Children pays for a child’s first trip, with host families choosing to foot the bill for return trips.
The Hempeys’ main fundraiser is their annual Beef and Beer/Irish Auction, which will be held this year on April 21 at the Richard T. Rossiter Memorial Hall in National Park. The evening will begin with an “Irish” auction (think Chinese auction, just green), followed by a beef and beer and music played by local Irish bands. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased through Marie’s Facebook page (facebook.com/irishree) or by calling her at 609-330-4484.
She’s also looking for donations for the Irish Auction. “I was in the hospital earlier this year, which put me behind in contacting businesses,” she says. Anyone who’d like to help her catch up—by donating a full basket or an item for raffle—can contact her through Facebook or by phone.
And most importantly, Hempsey is still seeking hosts for this year’s class of children. She emphasizes that you don’t have to be able to take the child on a fantastic vacation or spend a lot of money. As she puts it, “These kids don’t really need to see Disney World. What they need to see is a life without violence.”