A two week cross-community cross-cultural project which brought 35 teenagers from Banbridge and Delaware in the USA together has ended with old friendships strengthened and new friendships begun.
Thirty six years ago, a group of Americans set up Ulster Project Delaware (UPD) to allow teenagers from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds to leave Northern Ireland’s Troubles and entrenched opinions behind and get to know each other in a neutral, safe environment.
More than three decades on it is a testament to UPD and projects like it that Northern Ireland is not only enjoying peace and normality, but these American parents feel confident and safe in sending their children to stay and experience life here.
In July 2011, 18 teenagers from Banbridge spent a month in Wilmington, Delaware, living with host families. They experienced fantastic hospitality, visited cities including Washington, New York and Philadelphia, participated in team building activities like robot design and an assault course, worked on charitable projects, and spent time together discussing their differences and similarities
The Banbridge teenagers gained so much from this experience and formed such strong bonds with the Americans that they and their parents came together in an endeavour to further the aims of UPD by reuniting the teenagers again in a strife-free atmosphere that emphasises acceptance of everyone, regardless of creed. And so Delabridge 2012 was born.
Fundraising began in earnest last December, and thanks are extended to everyone who supported the various activities which included a bun sale, fireside quiz, family quiz, folk concert, coffee morning, and bag packs in Tesco stores in Lisburn and Banbridge.
The parents and teenagers devised a programme of activities which included a trip to the north coast for the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-rede and Portrush; two days in Dublin including Trinity College, the Dail and the City Hall; a visit to the Ulster American Folk Park; a tour of Stormont conducted by the UUP Deputy Leader John McCallister; a visit to the new Titanic Centre; water sports at Craigavon Lakes and karting at Hillsborough.
UPD is a church based project, with all the young people nominated by their churches, and it was fitting that the first Delabridge activity took the form of an ecumenical family service at Castlewellan Forest Park.
The theme was Peace, Love and Friendship, music was provided by Maria and Brian Quinn, with readings, prayers and poems by teenagers and parents. There was also a candle ceremony and the teenagers each exchanged an Angel pin. The service was followed by a barbecue.
One of the last events on the schedule was an American Night at Banbridge Golf Club when the teenagers, host parents and siblings all came together for a night of music, food and dancing, strengthening the friendships not only between the teenagers, but between the host families here in Banbridge.
As the programme closed, the teenagers talked about what they had enjoyed about Delabridge 2012 and what the project had meant to them.
Cameron Magee, from Loughbrickland, said: “Knowing I will always have friends around the world gives me a sense of comfort that no-one else could ever know. I would not change a thing about Delabridge. I cannot express my gratitude enough.”
American Rachel Shellberg commented: “I was able to experience a new culture and the daily lifestyle of a different family to my own. I also learned a lot about the history of Northern Ireland.”
David Waddell from Banbridge said: “I feel that I have gained better relationships with the Irish and American teenagers. I also learned there are lots of fun things to do in Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
Mary Rose Mangan from Delaware, said: “For the past two weeks I think I have learned tolerance and more about the Troubles. I have also had a great time seeing everybody and seeing all the sites and learning about the culture.”
Banbridge girl Sinead McLean said she now had many more memories to add those from last year. “A big thanks to the parents for everything. All the trips have been fab, new friendships have formed and old friendships have grown stronger,” Sinead said.
Molly Kerrigan from Wilmington said: “I feel like I have the ability to do anything I want because I know I can count on 34 teens to support me.” Fellow American Logan Fencer said: “I got to meet the best people in the world.”
Loughbrickland girl Megan Whan said she had gained a greater understanding of her community and culture. “It has been a great experience and one I will always remember,” she said.
American Connor Rock said: “I have enjoyed the opportunity to see beautiful Northern Ireland and to experience excellent hospitality. I feel I have become more mature from dealing with the freedom and the different culture here.”
Local girl Danielle Craig said the project had given her a greater understanding of cultural differences and ‘the ability to accept all of the things that make us different.’
Aoife McQuaid from Seapatrick said: “Delabridge 2012 gave me the chance to reconnect with people and nurture friendships which had been developing across 3,000 miles for a year whilst gaining a greater appreciation for our own culture. We were able to educate and enlighten our international friends with our history, both the good and bad aspects.”
And Shaneika Farrell from Banbridge said the friendships made last year had grown from strength to strength. “The aims of the project have been 100 per cent totally embraced with tolerance and acceptance between and within the group and everyone associated in organising our fun-filled activities,” she said.
The other Banbridge teenagers involved in Delabridge 2012 were: Aaron Bushby, Katie Cromie, Sean Kelly, Orla Lennon, Ellen McConville, Emma McElnea, Caolan McEwan, Katie McGowan, David McMullen, Emma O’Boyle, and Matthew Thompson.
Delabridge 2012 chairperson Ciara McLean said the project had been a great success: “It has been a great pleasure to have shared this experience with all of the teenagers. The Project has clearly had a marked effect on all of them and their families. Their futures will be very positively influenced by their involvement in what has been a triumph for a relatively small but significant step for the peace and reconciliation process.”