Robert Raiche was nearing the end of a long career as a YMCA director when he read in the newspaper “about these kids in Northern Ireland who picked up the rubber bullets that cops shot at them, and then sold them,” said his son Robert Jr. of Stafford, Conn.
“He thought the kids sounded bright and entrepreneurial,” Mr. Raiche’s son said. “He was convinced they could do more with their lives if given the chance.”
Soon after, a YMCA director in Northern Ireland contacted Mr. Raiche, who was then director of the YMCA in Portsmouth, N.H., about a group of Catholic and Protestant boys. Mr. Raiche raised funds from private donors and arranged for the boys to visit the United States, socialize, and have fun in a place safe from war and conflict.
From that first trip in 1986 grew Friends Forever, an international organization that now brings teenagers from Ireland, Israel, and Uganda to the United States, most often to the North Shore, with the goal of building friendships and understanding among youths from opposite sides of conflicts.
Mr. Raiche, who was honored by various organizations for efforts in creating Friends Forever, died of respiratory illness Jan. 1 in Beverly Hospital. He was 85 and had lived in Danvers most of his life.
Rather than “preach to them about conflicts that were raging in their own countries,” Mr. Raiche would encourage the youths to spend time together, said Stephen Martineau, executive director of Friends Forever.
Mr. Raiche, he added, would say: “ ‘We’ll let them play together. Then they’ll become friends and the conversations will come naturally.’ It was a simple plan, but it was genius.”
While delivering a eulogy at memorial service in January, Martineau read notes of appreciation from just a few of about 1,300 past participants in Friends Forever.
“Bob knew that peace doesn’t begin in a room with adults writing down plans on a piece of paper,” Martineau said. “Peace begins when two kids use the other side of that paper to keep score for their board game, or even better, as spitballs.”
In a statement, US Representative John Tierney, a Democrat who represents North Shore communities, said that “through his organization, Friends Forever, and his civic involvement in Danvers, Robert made meaningful, enriching, and lasting contributions. I appreciate all of Robert’s efforts to increase cultural awareness and foster peace.”
Youths on Friends Forever trips to New England typically spend two weeks canoeing and mountain climbing; visiting mosques, synagogues, and churches; and performing community service. They usually stay in a donated space, cooking for themselves.
“It’s not a vacation,” Mr. Raiche told the Globe in 2011. “I call it the ‘life raft’ approach. They have to learn to trust each other, so they can survive and get on in the world.”
Martineau described a recent trip when visiting Israeli teens stayed at a facility for elders on the North Shore. “You walked in the door of the place and there were all these Jewish and Arab kids playing piano with a bunch of Alzheimer’s patients,” he said.
Mr. Raiche’s plan, Martineau said, was to get youths out of their element so “they see that even though they’re Arabs and Israelis, over here, they’re the ones who are alike.”
Martineau added that Mr. Raiche effortlessly connected with the “hardest-hit kids” in the program. “Bob start hanging out with them and within five minutes, they’d be laughing and at ease,” Martineau said. “He was such a natural.”
In his eulogy, he called Mr. Raiche a “stubborn optimist with this childlike wonder.”
Those over the age of 30 who “lacked a sense of mischief . . . didn’t get a lot of slack,” Martineau said. “But if you were a kid from any background, rich, poor, Protestant, Catholic, black, white, Jewish, Muslim, you could do no wrong. . . . He not only had a gift, for many of these youths, he was the gift.”
Robert W. Raiche was born in Springfield and graduated from Springfield College with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and youth leadership.
While he was directing a YMCA in Springfield, he accepted an offer to transfer to Hilo, Hawaii.
His son said Hawaii quickly became home to Mr. Raiche, especially when he fell in love with Yooko Shimana, a nurse at the YMCA’s camp program.
After five years, Mr. Raiche returned to Springfield College for a master’s in education, and became director of a YMCA in Danvers. He married Shimana, and they settled in Danvers to raise three children.
“Growing up, we all volunteered at the Y, and we often had kids to our house,” said his son, who hosts a group of Friends Forever participants at his own home each year. “My father always had a soft spot for teenagers, especially kids in trouble, kids who felt like outsiders.”
Whenever possible, Mr. Raiche and his wife took their children to Hawaii, where they spent time with many cousins, their son said.
For more than 40 years, Mr. Raiche was a Danvers Town Meeting member. He also was a branch leader of the National Kidney Foundation and was involved with the Rotary Club.
During its first decade, Friends Forever was linked to the YMCA, and in 1997 it became a private nonprofit based in Portsmouth. Community groups such as YMCAs and Rotary Clubs remain involved in fund-raising and organizing trips. Mr. Raiche remained involved as well, and served on the organization’s board of directors until his death.
A service has been held for Mr. Raiche, who in addition to his wife of 53 years and his son leaves another son, George of San Francisco; a daughter, Ina Drouin of Danvers; and four grandchildren.
“He was our biggest champion,” his son Robert Jr. said. “When we were hurting, he hurt. And when we were happy, he couldn’t have been happier.”
Mr. Raiche realized a long-held dream in the 1990s as he opened a toy store in Danvers.
“The store was a big success in that he got enormous enjoyment from it,” Robert Jr. said. “He always had something going on there. He was always dragging in kids off the street to help out, kids who might be heading down the wrong path.”Kathleen McKenna can be reached at email@example.com.