Irish, U.S. teens enjoy solidarity
The program to promote world peace is in its 18th year here.
CANFIELD -- They're separated by an ocean -- and occasionally by the language they're supposed to have in common.
But the 24 teens participating in this summer's Mahoning Valley Ulster Project are learning at least one important thing about people from other countries.
"We're finding out that we have a lot more in common than we have differences," said Zach Coulter, 16, of North Jackson.
Twelve Mahoning Valley teenagers ages 13-17 and a dozen 15- and 16-year-olds from Northern Ireland have learned from and laughed with each other in this year's program, which began June 29
The visitors -- half Catholic, half Protestant and almost all from the Belfast area -- will return home Wednesday.
And in between, they've all talked about some big ideas -- like faith, hope, peace and love, says one of the Ulster Project's local co-directors.
"It's a way for them to learn about themselves," said Vickie Vicars, who has been involved with the project, now in its 18th year in the Valley, for about five years. "It's a time of discovery."
Similar programs are conducted in 29 other U.S. cities. The visitors stay in the homes of host families, including those of the local teens in the project.
"We want all the kids to understand the power of community and our kids to learn the power of hospitality," said Teresita Hartz, the project's other local director. "One person can make a difference and break down barriers."
With this group, both directors and participants say, that happened pretty quickly.
"We thought that the American kids would hang out with American kids and the Irish kids with the Irish kids," said Patrick Shelton, 16, of Liberty. "The boys ended up hanging out with the boys and the girls with the girls."
But another U.S. male quickly chimed in, "Yeah, but we broke down those barriers, too."
Meeting new people
Participation in the project means that for a month, each teen will devote most of his or her time to a group that's at least half composed of strangers.
"It's kind of a sacrifice, because you don't get to hang out with your friends for a month," said Patrick Hobby, 13, of Poland. "But it ended up being worth it."
"Yeah, they're cooler than most of my friends," one of the Valley teens said.
The teens started to get to know one another immediately, as the Irish visitors were greeted at the airport by the U.S. teens, and all rode back to Youngstown together on a school bus.
Their activities during the past four weeks have involved service projects, worship activities and some fun social outings.
They've participated in a cleanup and clearing project at an area park, and they will operate a concession stand at the national PONY League softball tournament, which starts today at the Thunderplex in Vienna.
They've worshipped with both Catholic and Protestant congregations in the Valley.
And they've had a lot of fun, too. Several camp-type experiences, including the team-building "ropes course" helped draw the two groups closer together.
The teens recreated this in a couple of skits at a Wednesday night talent show at Canfield Presbyterian Church, with a twist -- the girls portrayed the boys and vice versa.
Other outings have included a trip to Cedar Point and shopping at Prime Outlets in Grove City.
Seeing beyond stereotypes
According to the teens, the whole experience has helped break down the barriers that did exist, like language differences and stereotypes.
Questions from a reporter about these topics sparked several spirited discussions among the group, including just how to pronounce the word "leisure" and how Irish and American people handle a knife and fork differently.
Among the Irish contingent, several commented that their visit had helped them see a United States that's different from the one presented to them in the news and popular culture.
"People [in Northern Ireland] get the wrong impression about Americans through the media and films," said Ciaran Gallagher, 16, of Belfast, noting that some people in his country see Americans as loud or lazy. "We didn't know how Americans socialized or whether they had the same ideas about conversation."
Others say that it has helped them grow personally.
"I've learned that you can do things by yourself, but that people are stronger when they work together," said Rebecca Hartz, 14, of Austintown.
"I'm more confident to talk to people, whoever they are," said Etaoin Farmer of Belfast, who celebrated her 16th birthday while here.
Jenny Heany, 15, of Bangor, Northern Ireland, said that members of her group have learned some things about each other, too.
"We've just accepted each other," she said. "We're Protestant or Catholic, but that's just one thing in our lives."
The participants in the program say they'll be sad when the time for parting comes later this week.
"I don't even want to think about it," one local teen said. "I cried when we sang our song together [at the end of the talent show]."
But the program makes return visits to Northern Ireland possible for Valley participants next summer, and some of the local teens say they want to go. Meanwhile, a couple of the teens say they plan to set up a Web site, so both groups can keep in touch.