By Jim Sullivan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Not many people can come to a new area and claim to have left their mark on it just 15 years later, but as the founder of Kids as Peacemakers, a non-profit organization created to foster peace and inspire kids and teens to create a more peaceful world, Merle Forney has.
“People talk about my smile,” said Forney. “I’ve been told that I smile a lot. I’m not aware of it that much.”
Born into family with members of a peace church and the Church of the Brethren, Forney, 88, believes that peace had been bred into him.
“We’re all human and we’re all influenced by a lot of things,” Forney said. “But it comes back to my training and my life. I am turned off by violence. I had served in the Army during World War II and that, along with my church background, informed me that people should speak out and try to do something positive to counteract the negative and violence.”
A retired policy writer for the Department of Health and Human Services, Forney and his wife, Margaret, moved to Newburyport from Silver Spring Maryland in November 1998 to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren. The Forneys soon joined the Central Congregational Church and began making friends.
“I needed a hobby,” Forney admitted.
Inspired by a model developed by his former church, Forney began the Dove Campaign to support the designation of “May as Peace Month” in Massachusetts in 1999. The campaign then reached out to schools, churches and social organizations to begin designing peace murals with the words; “Kids as Peacemakers” incorporated into them and the rest is area history.
“The best way was to contact as many churches, schools and social organizations that have a teaching responsibility to children,” said Forney. “Our task was to ask that they teach their children to adopt peace and peaceful living as a way to reduce violence in the community. Kids are the best educators of their parents, and if we can get kids to be concerned about nonviolence and talking to their parents, I think there could be some progress in this area.”
Progress was certainly made.
The Dove Campaign was incorporated as Kids as Peacemakers in 2005. Forney estimates he has sent out over 300 sheets of plywood to all the schools in Newburyport, as well as many in the surrounding communities, involving over 3000 students in the creation of over 20 murals that now grace several area towns including Lowell, Amesbury, Haverhill, Methuen, Lawrence, Byfield and West Newbury, where the latest of two new murals have gone up at the Page School and St. Ann’s Catholic Church.
“I don’t think it was me as much as the fact that a lot of people reacted to it and made it happen,” Forney said. “Because I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Kids as Peacemakers has also developed many partnerships along the way, including one with a similar national organization, On Earth Peace, which has broadened their reach. The child abuse prevention organization, the National Exchange Club oversees the Kids as Peacemakers program now and adopted its mural program in 2006.
“Many things have happened in my life that I can’t explain,” Forney said. “I’m 88 years old, going to be 89 in August. I had a good ride and I have had a wonderful life.”
Before he and his wife leave for Pennsylvania, Forney is overseeing the installation of the latest Newburyport mural at Park Circle.
“There is some sadness,” said Forney of his and Margaret’s departure. “But we also won’t miss a few things, like the rebuilding of the I-95 bridge and the finalization of the traffic circle by the Chain Bridge. But we’re going to miss a lot of people and the different organizations that we have been a part of. It’s just that, we are at a stage in life where we’ve been fortunate enough to have enough resources that we can go into a retirement community and stay there for the rest of our lives.”