The Ulster Project - a view from North America

The 2015 delegates from Londonderry with their hosts from Oak Ridge and counsellors Meghan Panter (Tennessee) second row, left, kneeling; Clark Ward, (Tennessee) left, standing; Jouhn Hough, East Tennessee President, standing, second left; Monica Haley, (Tennessee), second row, right, standing; Emmett Gallagher, from Londonderry, third row standing, right. Missing from picture is Londonderry counsellor, Roslyn McCorkell.
The 2015 delegates from Londonderry with their hosts from Oak Ridge and counsellors Meghan Panter (Tennessee) second row, left, kneeling; Clark Ward, (Tennessee) left, standing; Jouhn Hough, East Tennessee President, standing, second left; Monica Haley, (Tennessee), second row, right, standing; Emmett Gallagher, from Londonderry, third row standing, right. Missing from picture is Londonderry counsellor, Roslyn McCorkell.

Working as a photojournalist in Oak Ridge Tennessee, Russell Langley was tasked to write an article about the teenagers from Londonderry and his article is reproduced below.

He is employed by The Oak Ridger newspaper in Oak Ridge, TN. He moved there in 2012 with his family from California.

Participants on this year's Ulster Project trip to Oak Ridge.

Participants on this year's Ulster Project trip to Oak Ridge.

In addition to writing an article, Russel and his family hosted Rebecca Crothers as part of the 2015 Ulster Project and going to host again next year.

Russel decided to write this story in light of the good work done by these young people in building bridges and overcoming barriers. A lesson he thinks all world leaders should learn.

Imagine living in a world divided by walls.

Not the walls that divide the rooms in your home or office, but giant 30 foot walls that divide your very community into two distinct groups – Catholic and Protestant.

That is life in Northern Ireland and for the last month, 14 teenagers from Northern Ireland and 14 American teenagers came together in East Tennessee to find ways to knock down those walls.

Northern Ireland has been wracked with violence, euphemistically known as ‘The Troubles’, for years. The country is literally divided by walls erected on religious/political basis. On one hand the Catholics, who want English rule of the country to cease and for the English to go back to England. On the other hand the Protestants, loyal to the crown and supportive of English rule. In the middle, teenagers trying to discover their place in life.

Northern Ireland is literally divided by walls erected on religious/political basis. And, in the middle, teenagers try to discover their place in life.

Since the mid-1970s, The Ulster Project has worked to normalize the lives of these teens; and it’s working. A peace agreement was signed in 1998 and, while there is still violence, that violence is now met with outrage instead of support from all sides of the conflict.

Another bonus for the current generation of young adults is they were all born after the peace agreement was signed. They’ve grown up in a world that no longer quietly tolerates violence.

For the last month, 14 teenagers from Northern Ireland and 14 American teenagers have come together in East Tennessee to find ways to knock down the aforementioned walls. The teenagers and adult leaders of the project, on Thursday, attended the noon meeting of the Rotary Club of Oak Ridge.

At the direction of their counsellors, two teenagers were allowed at each table with the Rotarians. During the lunch, Southern accents melded with accents from Northern Ireland in conversations that, if not always understood, led to understanding.

John Hough, of Clinton, is president of The Ulster Project of East Tennessee. He gave a slide video that listed all the activities that the young adults have enjoyed since their arrival on June 5. Some of those activities included a scavenger hunt in Oak Ridge the second night they were here. The American’s were forced to decipher the clues leading to some of Oak Ridge’s landmarks such as Big Ed’s Pizza and Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Laboratory and Cafe.

Other activities, sanctioned by the project were ‘periods of discovery”’ where participants discussed issues that all young adults face regardless of nationality. Mountain challenges, hikes, cookouts, swimming, shopping, service projects and overnighters kept them going night and day. Some days were family days for the guests to spend with their American host families and whenever there was a free moment someone would cook up a party.

Hough explained the “four-legged stool” that The Ulster Project is built upon. These are the values and goals of the project and they are:

• Church services: Participants visited three distinctly different churches during their visit, St Mary’s Catholic Church, Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville and Oak Valley Baptist Church in Oak Ridge.

• Service projects: Hough, inspired by an article in The Oak Ridger by reporter Sara Wise, had the group cook a pancake breakfast to benefit impoverished children in and around Oak Ridge. There was also a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, pudding and beans, known in Ireland as an ‘Ulster Fry’, to raise money for next year’s project.

• Time of discovery: These emotional meetings dealt with deep issues including sectarian violence and bullying. Tears would often flow.

• Fun: These are teenagers, after all, and they had boundless energy and enjoyed whitewater rafting, a trip to Dollywood and a whole host of other adventures. Let’s not forget the parties, quite possibly more than allowed by Oak Ridge’s City Charter.

On Thursday, Emmett Gallagher, from Londonderry, spoke to the Rotarians about his comparatively unique experiences.

In 2008, he travelled to Knoxville as an Ulster Project teenager; and in 2015, he came to Oak Ridge as an adult counsellor. He also graduated from a teacher’s college in Ulster, Northern Ireland, while here and one of The Ulster Project celebrations was a graduation party for Gallagher.

He said The Ulster Project impacted his group and helped with mutual understanding. As he has moved on to adulthood, he said the project has helped with leadership skills and confidence.

Rotarians were encouraged to ask questions of the teenagers and the adults. The first Rotarian to speak up wanted to know what the biggest surprise was for the teens.

“We have fast food, but not this much,” said Beth Heaney.

“Having to repeat myself to be understood,” Hannah O’Brien said.

On the other hand, she said she had no problem with the Southern accents she encountered.

When asked what was her favourite East Tennessee experience to date, Rebecca Crothers said: “All the water activities”.

She swims with a team in Northern Ireland.

As these young adults came together, they were literal strangers.

Host families have watched bonds form among them all over the last month that promise to last a lifetime and this is the essence of the project. These people, these future leaders, have learned that the similarities of humanity can override the divisiveness of hate.

As Hough closed his presentation, the last two slides had a prophetic message for the group.

The first was packed with cartoons of Marvel and DC comic book heroes.

The second with teenagers from the project.

The first slide read ‘Heroes don’t look like they used to’.

The second slide simply read: ‘They look like you’.