Louisville families to host N. Ireland teens

Teens who participated in the Ulster Project watched a game at Slugger Field last summer. The Ulster Project brings together teens from Louisville and Northern Ireland to interact and find common ground. (Photo Special to The Record)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

Louisville will host an ecumenical program called the Ulster Project this summer that brings local teens together with their peers from Northern Ireland.

At the end of June eight teens from Sion Mills in Northern Ireland will come to Louisville for a month where they will reside with host families that have teens their own age. The boys and girls — a mix of Catholics and Protestants — will be accompanied by two young adult counselors.

Local families that have a teen in the household aged 14 to 17 may apply to be hosts.

The Ulster Project, which came to Louisville for the first time last summer, gives the teens an opportunity to interact and find common ground, said Melinda Leonard, local founder and co-director of the Ulster Project Louisville.

She explained that Northern Ireland has been fraught with political strife for decades among those who want to remain within the United Kingdom, largely Protestants, and those who want a united Ireland, mostly Catholics.

Though a peace agreement in 1998 helped quell divisions, discrimination and segregation still occur between the Catholic and Protestant communities, Leonard said in an interview last week.

That’s something the Ulster Project seeks to address.

“What we are trying to show these teens is that even though we have differences, in many, many ways we are very much alike. We are trying to break down barriers of prejudice and stereotypes. We are not born with those; but rather we learn them,” she said.

The Ulster Project was founded in 1975. It aimed to bring together Catholic and Protestant teens from Northern Ireland in a strife-free environment during the month of July, a month historically associated with violence among the two groups.

For four weeks, both sets of teens — the ones from Northern Ireland and Louisville — attend programs centered around four activities: worship, community service, self-discovery and fun, Leonard said.

The activities are designed to develop leadership and peace-

building skills and work to “build lasting trust and friendship among the group,” Leonard said.

This year, most of the programming will take place at Middletown Christian Church. Some sessions or meals will take place at St. Patrick Church.

Leonard has been involved in the Ulster Project since 1995 when she lived in Tennessee. When the opportunity arose to start a chapter in Louisville last year, she jumped at the chance.

“My hope is that we get to the end of the program and these teens will have been informed and encouraged that they possess the skills to be effective leaders and peacemakers and that they can make a difference in their communities and in the world,” she said.

While the focus of the program is to empower Northern Ireland youth with the skills to navigate their sometimes tumultuous encounters back home, teens from Louisville also gain valuable skills, Leonard said.

“For us in Louisville, there are prejudices, stereotypes toward immigrants, certain racial groups. We also look at gender, age and ability differences as well,” she said.

Organizers need at least one more family to commit to hosting a Northern Ireland teen for four weeks, beginning in late June.

Leonard said the family has to have a heart for peacemaking and needs to be open-minded. Families will need to provide a bed and breakfast and some other meals. All transportation, costs associated with the program and daytime meals will be provided by the program.

Families in the Louisville area interested in the program, should contact Leonard at 859-8335 or louisville

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