Belfast girl reunites with the D.C. family who changed her life

John Kelly
Columnist September 22, 2013

About 8 a.m. on Thursday, one of Sandy Hoyt’s neighbors called her with some news: Had Sandy seen that day’s Washington Post?

“I said no,” Sandy remembered. “Then she said, ‘Well, there’s an article about you and your family in the Metro section.’ I said, ‘But we haven’t done anything!’ ”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The neighbor said it was a story about an Irish child the Hoyts had sponsored years before.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Sharlene,’ ” Sandy said. “Then, still in my pajamas, I went out to grab the paper and bring it in.”

And there was my column, all about an 11-year-old girl from Northern Ireland who spent the summer of 1986 somewhere in Maryland, part of the Belfast Children’s Summer Program.


Sharlene Loughins (center, in yellow) with the Hoyt family, who hosted her in 1986. Sharlene was from violence-plagued Northern Ireland and came to the U.S. at age 11 as part of the Belfast Children’s Summer Program. (Courtesy of Sharlene Loughins McGivery)

Sharlene Loughins McGivery had contacted me in the hopes that I could reunite her with the family who had opened her eyes to a different way of living, free from the deadly prejudices of Belfast. Sharlene, now married with kids and living in Toronto, traces a direct line from that summer to her life now. She wanted to say thank you.

Sandy e-mailed me immediately, and I put her in touch with Sharlene. They spoke on the phone Thursday night.

“I was very nervous, thinking maybe she’s being polite,” Sharlene said. “A lot of people, maybe they don’t want to reconnect. Maybe she was just going to say, ‘Thank you, see you later.’ ”

In fact, what Sandy said was, “What happened to your Irish accent?”

Sandy told me, “When she stayed with us, none of us could understand her. My kids would come to me and say, ‘What is she saying?’ Poor little Sharlene would get furious.’ ”

Sharlene says she lost the accent long ago, after her family immigrated to Canada, a move that she says wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t spent time with the Hoyts at their home in Edgewater.

The two spoke on the phone for an hour, the memories coming back after nearly 30 years.

“She had me in tears, laughing,” Sharlene said. “I forgot how carsick I used to be. We had a quick chuckle about that.”

Sharlene hadn’t been in a car more than five times in Belfast. And she really wasn’t prepared for the boat ride the Hoyts took her on to see the Fourth of July fireworks in Annapolis. She threw up all over a neighbor.

Sandy had learned about the program from someone at Sidwell Friends, where her children went to school. It allowed Catholic and Protestant kids from Belfast to spend time with one another outside the religiously charged atmosphere of home. And it let them see a place where all faiths got along. Sandy was a schoolteacher with the summer off. It seemed like a good thing to do.

The Hoyts actually lived in Bethesda at the time. Their Edgewater house was for weekends, though they never told Sharlene that, not wanting her to think they were overly posh. Her husband, Bob, spent the summer commuting to his accounting job in Washington.

That summer ended up being the only time the Hoyts hosted a child from Belfast. The next year, Sandy gave birth to another boy, Jason, joining siblings Jennifer and Justin.

The families are making plans to see each other, possibly as early as October, when Sharlene and her husband, Chris, will fly down from Canada.

“I’ll have a gathering of all the people who know her and have everyone say hi,” Sandy said. “I just think it’s so special.”

I wondered what the lesson from all this was. Sandy thought for a while.

“I guess the lesson is it doesn’t matter who the child is or where the child comes from,” she said. “They’re just kids. They like to do what kids like to do. They like to eat what kids like to eat. It was just a wonderful experience being able to get to know so well another child. Most people don’t have that opportunity.

“When I look at it now, I think, my God, miracles really do happen. A lot of things could have prevented our ever reconnecting. Now we’re going to renew a friendship, not only between us but between our children. Hopefully we’ll remain really close friends.”

Troubles

In my Thursday column, I paraphrased comments from Jim Kennedy, president of D.C. Friends of Ireland, in a way that suggested he feels Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” are over. He doesn’t feel that way. “While much has improved in Northern Ireland, too many are still dying there,” Jim said.

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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