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Summer exchange is an opportunity to learn

Farmington's Curran family -- from left Rachel, Riley, Ian and Roger -- has played host to Belfast native Ethan Stewart since late June through the Children's Program of Northern Ireland.

Rachel Curran has learned a lot in the month she's had a exchange student living in her house. She's learned that despite a peace agreement conflicts continue in Northern Ireland. She's learned how different life can be for a kid growing up in Belfast. And she's learned some of the people around here don't necessarily know a lot about Ireland.

"You would be amazed how many Americans have asked me how his English is," said Curran, whose family has served since late June as host for a 12-year-old boy from Northern Ireland.

For the record, Ethan Stewart's English is just fine. It's his American that could use a little work. The Currans said it was a week or two before they could stop asking their guest to repeat everything he said.

Now, even the family's dog understands her name when it's spoken with an Irish accent.

Stewart is in Farmington through the Children's Program of Northern Ireland, an organization founded in 1973 to help get kids in Northern Ireland away from the violence they lived with every day. A peace agreement has ended the worst of the conflict, but even now the area is divided. Catholics and Protestants still go to different schools, park their cars in different areas and rarely associate with one another. Ask him to identify with a country, and Stewart will tell you he's British.

One of the goals of the program is to expose kids to a culture in which the kinds of divisions they grow up with are not important.

"There's still a lot of -- they call it the Troubles with a capitol T," Curran said. "They're very separated still."

The Currans got involved in CPNI after seeing a news story in May. Their kids had been asking to have another exchange student -- the Currans hosted a student from France five years ago as a last-minute fill-in -- and CPNI seemed to be a good way to do it. It was exposure to a foreign culture without the commitment of keeping a student for an entire school year.

"I think it's a great experience for my kids to see other cultures," Curran said.

They had to find a little help to pay for the program. They sold raffle tickets for the Twin Cities Irish Fair, and they got a donation from the Farmington Rotary to help cover expenses.

Stewart, who lives in Belfast, was 11 when he came to the United States. He celebrated his birthday July 9, and he got a scrapbook as a gift. The Currans have already taken more than 300 photos to document his visit.

The visit has included a number of firsts. Stewart went to his first parade on the Fourth of July, he saw his first baseball game -- he said it was confusing and boring -- and he got his first mosquito bite. He's made visits to Wisconsin, California, New Jersey and North Dakota and the family has a trip scheduled to Iowa.

The family has been keeping him busy. Their schedule has been packed with trips to the Mall of America, Grand Slam and Valleyfair, where Ethan rode his first rollercoaster.

Ethan said he's enjoyed his trip. He said there's more to do here than there is in Belfast, where he mostly spent his time at home playing video games or watching TV. He didn't like to go outside to play, he said, because it always felt like people were looking at him funny.

"It's better being somewhere else," he said.

Ethan has fit well into his host family. He's got two brothers who are close to his age, and he looks enough like one of his host brothers that people who don't know the family assume he's one of the family and one of the Currans' other sons is the one from Ireland.

He's also endeared himself to his host mother with his approach to mealtime.

"He's very good at trying everything, and everything you make he says is lovely," Curran said.

So far, everything about the visit has exceeded the family's expectations. They're sure they'll keep in touch once Ethan goes home in August and they believe the experience was as good for them as it was for his.

"I had prepared myself for it not being as rosy as I thought it would be, but it's been everything I wanted it to be and more," Curran said.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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