Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Experience I will Always Remember

When I was 16 I decided to spend my summer involved with a program call the Ulster Project. It was the best summer of my life!

If you are not aware there has been conflict in Northern Ireland between the Catholic and Protestant Religions and Politics for a very long time. The Ulster Project was started to end what is called The Troubles. The Troubles began in 1968 and it went on for 30 years.
There was a lot of death and injuries which occurred during that time. If you want to learn more about The Troubles the UP webpage (linked above) is where to start.

UP was started by Reverend Kerry Waterstone after he had participated in a pastoral exchange with another clergyman in Manchester Connecticut. It was because of his experience in America he believed that if the Irish teens were able to experience the way that Americans are able to live and work side by side without conflict they might be able to change their future in Northern Ireland. He believed that the project should help young, christian-based potential leaders from Northern Ireland and the United States become peacemakers by providing a safe environment to learn by practicing the skills needed to unite people when differences divide them. Because of him and his vision he was able to have the first project in Manchester Connecticut in 1975.

UP brings together teenagers which are 1/2 female, 1/2 male, 1/2 Protestant, and 1/2 Catholic. The teenagers are between the ages of 14-17. The reason they pick teenagers of that age is because they are young enough that an underground militant group had not influenced them as of yet. It is also because they are old enough to benefit from the experience. Those teens are matched up with a host teen who is of the same religion and sex. So a Catholic male would be paired with another Catholic male. The matches are made based on common interest and similar backgrounds My match was a girl who was an Irish dancer, played soccer, and played netball. I don't know much about netball other than it is similar to basketball but played with a different type of ball. I can't remember if she told me it was a soccer ball or not. I was a basketball player so we had sports in common. She also plays the piano and let me tell you she is pretty freaking amazing. Her skills still amaze me. 

The teens come to different cities in the United States for the month of July. They actually try to be in the states within a few days before the beginning of July.

My hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas started the project in 2000. We are paired with Portadown Northern Ireland. The teens come from Portadown every year. I was lucky enough to have participated in the 2001 project. There were 28 of us. 12 girls, 12 boys, and 4 counselors. I have life long friends because of that summer as well as memories I will never forget. 

I met my best friend that summer. She has been my rock through so much. My Irish Twin or Chicken, which I can't remember where that nickname came from, is seriously my other half. I don't know how two people could be so similar and get along so amazingly but had never met before in their entire life. We were and still are bound together by something neither of us can explain. We can go weeks without talking to each other and pick up like we are 16 again. 

During that month the group met everyday expect for one weekend which is family weekend but it was really just a Saturday that we did not meet. We did a lot of volunteer activities as well as other fun activities. I think the first day we had gone to a ropes course. This is something they continue every year because we had to learn how to work together as a team. It was one of the most interesting things I had ever done. I think there was even a zip line if I remember correctly. We of course we had to participate in the 4th of July parade and festivities! There was a trip to the zoo and a day at the lake. We also had a trip to Kansas City for an NSYNC concert. I remember spending the night in a CREEPY Univeristy that I swear was haunted. I did not sleep a wink that night! We were all cuddled up on one bed and scared to even move. I bet we screamed like a THOUSAND times that night. We had also gone to a Rodeo because Kansas is known for them. Those are just a few examples of all the activities we had done.

We also participated in Time of Discovery which is similar to what I would believe a group counseling session is like. I have never participated in one but I do remember sitting in a circle with two mediators and all of us talking about our feelings. We also had to do activities such as having our arms taped to paint sticks so we couldn't bend them and then work together to solve problems. The whole point of it was for us to overcome our differences and be able to work together for a better world. I came out of there with tears streaming down my face many times because I hurt for my friends who was more like family to me. We did a lot of hard work during those sessions and over came a lot of things. 

We attended both a Catholic Mass and a Protestant Church service as a group. It was interesting to see the differences in our religions and how we worship God. I also noticed a lot of similarities as well. There was also an opening Ecumenical Service where we ask God to bless the project and allow us to do his work. During the Ending Ecumenical service we praise and thank God for the project which brought all of us together. 

It has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I full heartedly believe in everything that UP stands for. I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for the project. I might be in the same place as I am now but I don't believe that I would be so open about my feelings. I used to keep everything bottled up inside and didn't express it at all. I was scared people would shy away from me because I had a lot of baggage. That summer taught me that there are people who still love you for you. It taught me that they will stand by you even though you may not get along. I share a bond with that group that nobody will ever understand unless you were part of it. I am so thankful for that summer because it made me who I am and gave me my soul sister.  

I have yet to see my other half again. We email, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, call, and Skype each other but that's not the same. It has been hard keeping our friendship strong for the last 14 years before there was Smartphones and the advancement of technology but we have found a way. Now our kids will be able to do the project together since they are similar in age. I know I will see her again. It may not be as soon as I like but I know when I do it will be a no makeup type of day because I will ball my eyes out. 

If it wasn't for her or UP I wouldn't have shared my thoughts with the world. 

Do you have an experience that has shaped you into the person you are today? Would you let your kid travel to another continent to participate in something similar to UP? Comment below and let me know about it! We all have a story to share and I want to hear a part of yours! 

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