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Teen-to-teen link between Ireland and America. Program gives youths opportunity for cross-cultural understanding

By Alf McCrearySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 1988



Belfast

NEARLY 70 teen-agers from Northern Ireland are spending a four-week holiday with families in Ohio and Wisconsin this month. Their visit is part of the Ulster Project, which since 1975 has been bringing Roman Catholic and Protestant Irish teens to America in hopes of changing attitudes of division. The teen-agers, in the 15 to 16 age group, come from areas in Ulster where Protestants and Roman Catholics have had little contact with each other. The project groups are mixed strictly - 50 percent Catholic and 50 percent Protestant - and equally male and female.

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In the United States each Irish teen is matched with an American of the same age, sex, religion, and general interests.

During their stay the teens experience such activities as ice- and roller-skating, horseback riding, canoeing, sailing, and bowling. They visit museums and nature reserves, baseball and American football games, and amusement parks. They taste foods as varied as tacos, boudin, kielbasa, hot dogs, and American ice cream.

But the project has a more serious side. Each week there is a ``breakthrough'' session in ``achieving your potential,'' and ``times of discovery'' to help broaden the youths' outlook.

The format varies from a series of exercises or discussions, an overnight stay, or a meeting with American young people from a different culture.

They also visit each other's churches - an opportunity that comparatively few teens in Northern Ireland have had. Activities also include spending time with the harsher aspects of American life, including sessions on community food programs and working with the homeless.

Stephen Dowds, a student from Queen's University in Belfast, is one of this year's project leaders. He visited Milwaukee in 1982 as a young member of one of the project groups.

``America is a country which everyone has heard about, but our ideas in 1982 were very basic,'' he says.

``We were bowled over by the hospitality of the American people, though we felt that many of their concepts about life in Northern Ireland were generalized. So we helped to try to clear up some misconceptions. We, in turn, learned much about other people who helped to put our life style and our problems in perspective.''

Stephen, who is studying for the Catholic priesthood, decided to contribute more of his time, talent, and energy to the project that had given him the opportunity to see life in the United States.

``This is very important work, and our choice of young people for the project is crucial. We have tried to pick out those people who have leadership potential, so in the long term we will be influencing the influencers,'' he says.

The Ulster Project's young people left Belfast June 28 with the good wishes of many community leaders, including the lord mayor of Belfast, Councilor Nigel Dodds.

He said that ``it gives me great pleasure to convey my warmest greetings and good wishes to everyone they may meet. I feel sure that they will benefit considerably from the experience of sharing in the many different aspects of American life, and that they will return home with many happy memories.''