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Cultural Ties That Bind

Ulster Project promotes Irish-U.S. cultural exchange for teens

Madison has hosted Irish teenagers
for the past 15 years

(June 2014) – Not long ago, tourists crossing into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland had more concerns than having the right currency to purchase a Cadbury bar at the border. The conflict between Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists, commonly known as the Troubles, began in the late 1960s and gave rise to frequent incidents of violence between the two parties.

Katie Wood
Katie Wood

When The Rev. Kerry Waterstone of Northern Ireland came to the United States on a pastor exchange program during the height of the Troubles, American acceptance of multiple religions and political views inspired him to form the Ulster Project.
Incepted in 1975, the Ulster Project brings together teenagers from Northern Ireland and the United States for learning peaceful conflict resolution and leadership skills. The Madison (Ind.) Ulster Project was established in 1998. In the last 15 years, Madison has played host to 150 teens from Northern Ireland.
This year, the Northern Irish teens will arrive June 25 and spend a month with a local host family. With two chaperones from Northern Ireland and two from America, the group will perform community service projects, take part in teambuilding and trust exercises, and attend religious services.
Madison Ulster Project Co-Presidents Katie and Brad Wood said teens between the ages of 14 and 16 participate. “Fifteen is the ideal age,” said Katie. “We’re really looking for future leaders who can take the things we teach, bring it back to their communities, and implement change.”
She first became involved with the Ulster Project as a counselor in 2009. The Woods saw an opportunity to improve the program’s structure and effectiveness, and they took over as co-presidents in 2011. Last year, they received a grant to write a new curriculum based on Muhammad Ali’s Six Core Values: respect, dedication, confidence, conviction, spirituality and giving.
“Our curriculum isn’t your typical youth group style,” she said. “Religion plays a part, but it’s more centered and focused on how to make and keep peace within a cultural setting.
While the Ulster Project is a faith-based initiative, the conflict between the Irish and Northern Irish is political in nature. British control of Northern Ireland in the 1600s spread Protestantism and denied Catholics land ownership. Some owners fear that land held under the union with the United Kingdom would be taken if Ireland rejoined as a whole republic.
“There are people from those divides who actually share the same religion,” said Brad Wood. The curriculum for the Madison Ulster Project teaches about the impact of classicism, racism and sectarianism, building toward methods of cultivating peace. Participants simulate homelessness, volunteer in a soup kitchen and attend services at a mosque and a synagogue. Experiencing other religions, he added, gives teens a better understanding of all religions and how people can learn to work together. The curriculum also sets aside time for fun activities such as a retreat, a ropes course, group outings to see movies and a trip to King’s Island amusement park. 
The Woods agreed that being careful not to take a stand is a vital and challenging aspect of leading the Ulster Project and working with youth. “We don’t tell them what religious or political views to have. What we try to teach them is if you believe something, know why you believe it,” said Brad.
The program emphasizes critical thinking skills toward community leadership. The leadership development curriculum they wrote focuses on anti-bullying. They survey Ulster Project participants at the beginning and end of the project, teaching strategies that discourage bullying and tactics teens can use for ending bullying as it happens.
The Ulster Project has led participants to some impressive success stories. When the Woods visited Northern Ireland two years ago, they met Rev. Waterstone as well as Gavin Robinson, who was at the time the Lord Mayor of Belfast and an Ulster Project alumnus. Robinson’s time in office was characterized by his bipartisanship and a dedication to hearing both sides of the unionist-nationalist debate.
Closer to home, Katie Wood said that the teens with whom she has worked are now going to college and choosing majors based on their experiences from the Ulster Project. “They’ve said their time with us changed their lives,” Katie said, “and they want to teach people that peace is possible, that there’s a different way.”

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