The tragedy of the historic rift between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland was capsulized earlier this month when three boys burned in their beds as victims of the violence that has been all too common in that country.

But a few Utah families are hoping to bridge the gap between the two feuding groups, one child at a time.Through Project Children, whose Utah chapter was formed by Maureen Harvey of Layton in 1994, Protestant and Catholic children are given the chance to escape the strife in their country by coming to stay with American families for the summer.

"It's a difficult place to be a child," Harvey said. "The stress they live under every day is unimaginable. We just wanted to free them from that, if only for a little while."

In addition to being a nice summer getaway, though, the program was designed to expose children - usually between 7 and 12 years old, from the most war-torn areas of Northern Ireland - to people of "opposing" faiths. Ideally, Protestant children stay with Catholic families, and Catholic children stay with Protestant families.

The hope is that the children will learn that the perceptions they've been taught are, like most prejudices and stereotypes, more a creation than a reality, Harvey said.

"It gives them the chance to get together and see that they are more alike than they are different," she said. "A lot of them can't figure out why they hate each other. They just know they are supposed to.

"In a lot of ways, it resembles more a racial issue than it is about religion. It's more about discrimination. In Ireland, the kids know right away whether or not another kid is someone they can be friends with. They know from the way they talk, or where they're from. But here, they can't tell, which is new to them."

The religious dynamic in Utah provides kids with an even more unique perspective on the Protestant-Catholic duel they've grown up with.

"The kids are really surprised that they're not in Catholic or Protestant neighborhoods, and that most people aren't like they are," Harvey said. "I think it's great. They get to see that it doesn't matter that much, and that it doesn't have to matter."

Project Children was created by ex-New York City bomb squad detective Denis Mulcahy in 1975 and has affiliates in 19 states, Harvey said. To date, over 14,000 children have participated in the program nationwide.

This year, Utah families welcomed five children and one adult intern, mostly from Belfast and Derry.

Susan Mole, Park City, has participated in the program for three years. The first year was challenging, she said, because 10-year-old Kevin was "already pretty hard core," a street-wise kid conditioned to believe the common socio-religious prejudice.

"It was too late to reach him," Mole said. "That's why we try to find them when they're a little younger. So they can start seeing, before they can even verbalize the hatred, that people can live in peace."

The next year, 8-year-old Patrick came. He was more protected, both by his family and by his age, from the violence that surrounded his Belfast home. His cousin had been coming to America with Project Children for six years, so Mole said Patrick was much more prepared.

Still, there were challenges.

"You like to think you're doing things out of the goodness of your heart," Mole said. "But then they don't say `thank you' or `please' and you wonder what's going on. I remember after a whole summer of trying to get Patrick to remember to say thank you after meals, we were sitting down for our last dinner together. I asked him, `Patrick, when you go back home, what do you say to your mom when you get up from the table?' I remember that he looked at me and said, `I don't know. We don't have a table.'

"It hit me then that these are not privileged kids. They're everyday kids, coming from really hard circumstances."

Project Children's dream is to quell the tide of violence in Northern Ireland by teaching the children - one at a time - there are alternatives, Harvey said. By living with and befriending people they used to think were irreconcilably different from them, they'll be able to go back to Ireland armed with the strength of tolerance and the ability to make peaceful decisions.

Mole and Harvey share that vision.

"Before they grow up and really want to change things, they have to know it can be different," Harvey said. "We want to get them out of Ireland as soon as possible, to give them a sense of what could be."