By Kalea hall
It has been only a day since Eimear McColgan, a 15-year-old girl from Belfast, Northern Ireland came to America, and she already has recognized cultural differences.
But by the end of her monthlong stay with the Ulster Project, Eimear and the other teens involved will see how similar their lives are to the American teens hosting them.
The Mahoning Valley Ulster Project orientation and potluck dinner Friday at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Stadium Drive was the first time all participants, American and Irish, could sit down, eat, talk and grow.
“It’s about learning how to accept people who are different than you,” said Brienne Seekford, an American participant in the project.
The Ulster Project is a national program created 26 years ago as a way to bring together the youth of America and Northern Ireland. The project enables a group of teenagers from Northern Ireland to come and stay with an American host family for the month of July.
In that month, the teens have team-building experiences, volunteer at area organizations, go to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, explore different churches and Youngstown itself.
“[The project] is something that catches you,” said Lynn Seekford, co-director of the Mahoning Valley Ulster Project. “Every parent I spoke to today has a smile from ear to ear.”
All 12 of the teens from Northern Ireland are new this year, and there also are some new host families to the program, including the Huggins family of Poland who found out about the project through Facebook.
“I like volunteer projects,” Emily Huggins said. “I thought it would be a good idea to open up to different ideas and new people.”
Emily’s parents, Patti and Rick Huggins, are eagerly anticipating the activities the project will have in July because it will give their daughter “some different perspectives” outside the small community they live in.
“My anticipation is for Emily’s growth,” Rick said.
The Hugginses are hosting Eimear, who already has enjoyed some new and tasty American treats such as Dairy Queen and Chick-Fil-A, both of which she enjoyed.
Eimear also was surprised by the language difference. For example, to her, a trunk of a car is a boot, and she also was shocked when the family was able to ask for a carry-out box at a sit-down restaurant. Despite the differences, Eimear is excited to learn and grow from the project.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Eimear said.
Eimear and the other Northern Ireland teens are accompanied by two counselors. One of them is Phil Murray from Belfast, who was once in Eimear’s shoes.
Murray went to Milwaukee with The Ulster Project as a teenager and decided he wanted to stay involved with the program that helped him grow up and become more outgoing.
“The whole purpose of the program is to take the kids and put them in a neutral environment,” Murray said. “It’s always good to not have that pressure and learn from one another on the human level.”
Murray said the teens who just arrived in America will all be surprised by their transformations by the end of the month, including the American teenagers.
“[The project] is a phenomenal experience for even the American [teenagers],” Murray said.