Ulster teens learn about diversity, acceptance and service
Saturday, July 6, 2019
Greenville teens worked side by side with teens from Northern Ireland in sweltering heat on Wednesday at the local branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
The young people, who ranged in age from 14 to 16, were wiping down sticky pouches of CapriSun fruit drinks, labeling them with allergy information and tossing them into a big bin.
“At least we’re not shivering,” said Jeffrey McLaughlin, 15, who is from the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, which is located on the 55th parallel (think Alaska) where the temperatures are much cooler at this time of year.
McLaughlin is one of four Catholic and two Protestant teens, who, along with two counselors, are in Greenville for the next four weeks as participants in the Ulster Project.
The youth, all from Derry, are staying in the homes of host teens and their families.
Sam Glass, 16, a student at D.H. Conley High School and a member of Covenant Methodist Church in Winterville, is serving as a host. He said that participating in the Ulster Project is a lot of fun, despite Wednesday’s heat-related discomfort.
The Ulster Project has been in existence since 1975 and was originally started by an Anglican priest as a way to ease tensions in troubled Northern Ireland. The mission of the Project is to “(transform) young Christians into leaders and peacemakers,” according to the Project’s website.
Tensions have eased considerably in the last 40-plus years, especially under the Good Friday Agreement, a peace agreement reached in 1998. However, conflicts still exist, said counselor Gary Clarke, who is a high school teacher in Derry.
The priest who founded the Ulster Project thought that teens from Northern Ireland would benefit from witnessing the diversity that exists in America, “specifically how people of different ethnic, racial and faith backgrounds had learned to live together in the ‘melting pot’ society,” according to the website.
There’s not a lot of diversity in Northern Ireland, Clarke said. Being either Catholic or Protestant is about as diverse as it gets.
The tensions between the two groups are part of a long history and today there still are conflicts about housing, economics and the sharing of power, Clarke said.
Wednesday’s service project was the first of many for the teens, who will be participating in other types of activities as well.
While they are in the United States, the group will take a trip to Washington, D.C., as well as a beach trip to Oak Island.
Some of their activities are designed to strengthen relationships and form bonds.
Rachel Wallace, 15, of Derry, said that her favorite activity so far was making and eating spaghetti Bolognese at Saint Peter Catholic Church with the rest of the group.
Wallace said she had applied to participate in the program because she had heard through friends that it is “really good.”
McLaughlin applied for the program because his cousins had participated and had a great experience, he said.
As a Catholic teen, he said that he is learning that Catholics and Protestants have a lot more similarities than differences and he is learning to see Protestants in a new way.
Catholics and Protestants tend to be segregated in Northern Ireland but this program ensures that the two groups will interact, Clarke said. That intermingling started back in Derry.
Before the Northern Ireland teens set out for America, they spent six months at home getting to know one another. They participated in fundraising activities as well as fun days, Clarke said.
Thanks to modern technology, Greenville teens also were able to get to know the teens they would be hosting, said Allison Knox, a second-year counselor with the Ulster Project and a student at ECU majoring in social work.
Some of them were able to FaceTime with each other, said Knox, who hosted a teen herself in 2012.
The way the program matches the teen hosts with the visiting teens has changed over the years, according to leaders.
Teens today are matched according to similar interests, Knox said. For example, a Catholic teen from Ireland with a passion for animals might be paired with a Protestant teen from Greenville who shares that same interest.
The program teaches a lot about acceptance, Knox said.
Caleb Espinosa, an ECU alumni and teacher at D.H. Conley High School, also is one of the Greenville counselors.
Espinosa said that he found the Ulster Project to be “a fantastic opportunity to guide young adults in a positive direction.”
Brittanie Frieze, volunteer services coordinator at the food bank, said she was glad to have the Ulster Project participants on hand as volunteers on Wednesday, along with another group that was helping out.
“We depend on our volunteers whether it is a group of 10 or 110,” Frieze said.
She said she was happy that the Northern Ireland teens, on a trip away from their home community, wanted to find a way to make Greenville better.
“It means a lot to us,” Frieze said. “It’s touching.”
Greenville is one of several cities in the United States that participates in the Ulster Project.
Other teens and counselors from Derry went to Tennessee and groups from other Northern Ireland towns and cities went to other locations in the United States, Clarke said.
For more information about the Ulster Project visit http://www.ulsterproject.org.