BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — In his later years, Robert Raiche was known to many kids in town as the kindly owner of Toys and Things, an old-fashioned toy store with a Danvers High student working the computer and a life-size stuffed teddy bear out front.
Before that, generations of young people knew Raiche as the director of YMCAs in Danvers; Salem; Springfield; Hilo, Hawaii; and Portsmouth, N.H.
He is perhaps best known, however, as someone who tried to bring a measure of peace to young people caught up in conflicts in Northern Ireland and Israel, through the Friends Forever program, which he founded and then chaired for many years. The group has met with former President George H.W. Bush, and won praise from former Sen. George Mitchell, a leader in peace talks in Northern Ireland. Congressman John Tierney nominated Raiche for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
“He was so excited about that,” Stephen Martineau, executive director of Friends Forever, said of the nomination. “It was quite an honor that happened.”
Raiche died Jan. 1 at age 85 after becoming ill around Thanksgiving. He was diagnosed with cancer in his chest in early December, said his son, Robert Raiche Jr.
Raiche had dreamed of returning to Hawaii, where he started a YMCA and met his wife of 53 years, and it had been his desire to live another 20 years to see the Friends Forever organization grow, his son said.
“He was a lot more than Friends Forever,” Raiche Jr. said. “He was the kind of guy who was your No. 1 cheerleader.” Raiche was a calm, steady man who was never judgmental. He spoke highly of his three children and four grandchildren, and never failed to recognize even the smallest accomplishments of others, his son said. He was a cheerleader for the underdog kid.
“I would describe my dad as I would remember him,” said his daughter, Ina (Raiche) Drouin of Danvers. “He had an incredible zest for life. He loved working with teenagers, and he was always on the lookout for a teen that needed extra help.”
The nonprofit organization Raiche founded in 1986, based in Portsmouth, N.H., has worked with 1,300 young people from all over the world to help them overcome cultural differences that lead to violence in their communities. The organization worked first with Catholic and Protestant teenagers in Northern Ireland, then Arab and Jewish teens in Israel, and now young people from tribal groups in Uganda.
The program is simple. It brings small groups of young people from each side of the divide on retreats to the United States, with the North Shore often serving as a destination. These trips help young people build trust and friendships, and the program then works with the teens when they return home.
It’s part of the “Life Raft Formula” philosophy Raiche espoused.
“If you really want to know someone, take the seat next to him or her in a life raft,” he was known to say.
Raiche founded Friends Forever after reading newspaper stories about troubles in Northern Ireland.
“The kids in Northern Ireland were getting the British soldiers to shoot at them with rubber bullets,” Raiche Jr. said. The kids would then sell the bullets for money. Raiche, a frustrated entrepreneur, was enthralled by these kids’ smarts, and he realized they could do more in life. “He thought that was such an entrepreneurial thing to do,” his son said.
Raiche later fulfilled his entrepreneurial dream by opening a toy store on Maple Street in Danvers about 10 years ago. He sold it in 2009.
In the days before his death, Raiche was active in helping Friends Forever find a new location, Martineau said. Last year, the organization served 100 young people from around the world, including three groups from Israel.
Raiche was also a dedicated Rotarian, and he was a more than 40-year Danvers Town Meeting member.
Raiche received his share of accolades, including the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice in 2001; the Drum Major for Justice Award from the Danvers Committee for Diversity in 2003; Rotary International’s Service Above Self Award and Rotary’s Donald MacRae Peace Award.
A native of Springfield, Raiche earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Springfield College and went to work for the YMCA. In the mid-1950s, Raiche was offered the job of building and running a YMCA in Hilo, Hawaii.
“That was where he became his own man,” said Raiche Jr., who said his father forever considered Hawaii his home. It’s where he met his wife of 53 years, Yooko, a nurse at a YMCA camp there. The couple moved to Danvers in 1960, and he went on to lead the YMCAs in Danvers, Salem and Portsmouth, N.H.
“Bob was a visionary,” said Danvers YMCA Executive Director Lenny Mercier. “He was the type of person who could look at something and say, ‘We should try this.’”
A celebration of Raiche’s life is planned for today at 11 a.m. at Danversport Yacht Club.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.