Ulster Project-Utah: Building peace one teen at a time
We had no doubts whatsoever that welcoming a teen from Northern Ireland into our home for a month would be inspirational for our 15-year-old son, Ian.
And friends who been part of the Ulster Project before had warned it would profoundly affect my wife, Kathleen Brown, a professor of education who runs the University of Utah Reading Clinic, and me, a Tribune reporter.
That it has, ranking among the highlights of our lives.
"We were prepared for an intense but rewarding experience. I don't think we were prepared for just how rewarding it would be for us as parents," Kathleen observed. "We quickly grew to love Gerard. We wish he could stay here, live with us and go to Judge [Memorial Catholic High School] with Ian."
She was referring to Gerard (pronounced Jaird) Duddy, not quite 15, a sports enthusiast from Omagh, a retail center of maybe 25,000 people in the bucolic countryside of central Northern Ireland, about 70 miles west of Belfast.
Like us, Gerard is Catholic. He was one of 12 teens from Omagh six Protestants, six Catholics, six boys, six girls who were paired up with equal numbers of Utah Catholics and Protestants, girls and boys, in this 27th annual edition of Ulster Project-Utah.
This uplifting endeavor is part of a broader effort to use American teens to help build peace by weakening religious divisions that have persisted for centuries in violence-plagued Northern Ireland.
These Northern Irish teens' lives have not been immune to that violence.
On the afternoon of Aug. 15, 1998, Gerard was a fussy 10-month-old. So his mum, Hilary Nelson, had his dad, Michael, take Gerard for a car ride to lull him to sleep. Michael had just made a turn away from the center of town when the explosion occurred.
Planted in a red sedan parked along Omagh's main thoroughfare of small shops, the bomb shredded the crowded street with shrapnel, killing 31 people (including unborn twins of a woman who died along with her 18-month-old daughter and her mother). An additional 220 were injured.
As Gerard understands the story, his mum was panic-stricken upon hearing the blast, knowing her husband and baby had headed in that direction. She remained shaken to the core even after they arrived home safely.
Committing to the project • We had thought of doing the Ulster Project with our older son, Patrick, now 20. But he was a baseball player then, and I didn't think he could afford to miss summer ball to meet the Ulster Project's requirement of a complete commitment to a month of daily activities. In hindsight, that was a mistake.
Fortunately, Ian did not have summer conflicts. And for years, he had been eager to participate, his interest stoked repeatedly by Tammie Cleverly, an Ulster Project-Utah board member whose day job was running the after-hours program at our boys' elementary school at St. Ambrose Catholic Church.
Other friends weighed in with encouragement.
Phil and Marjorie Start have had three children (Patrick, Olivia and Claudia) go through the program so far, each time with similar results.
"You want your kids to always have the best experiences at everything and this is just a wonderful experience," said Marjorie, one of nearly 350 host "moms" in the quarter-century of Utah's involvement in the project. "It's just so great for these teenagers to feel the connections, to open their eyes. â¦ It's easy to go through life without realizing there are people of other faiths out there."
When word came in mid-April that Ian would be one of the 12 local host teens, he was elated. So were we.
Six weeks later, we were introduced to Gerard. A packet arrived in the mail containing a few pictures of him with his father, the second-generation owner of a small business that makes windows and doors, and his mother, who works in an Omagh bank.
Gerard's introductory letter informed us he has two older stepbrothers and a stepsister from his dad's first marriage, to a kind woman who died of cancer, and that he had a younger sister who passed away before her first birthday.
"Although I have mainly been brought up as an only child, I am rarely alone," he said of his life at Christian Brothers Grammar School and, after classes, playing golf, tennis, handball and, especially, soccer. "I am a very easygoing person with a very positive outlook on life. I thoroughly enjoy trying out new activities/challenges and am always busy doing something."
An accurate assessment, we discovered, and proper credentials for the Ulster Project.
Welcoming the new arrivals • The Northern Irish teens arrived June 26 with two counselors who had been in the project when they were 15. Greeted with fanfare at the airport by 12 American teens and their counselors (same rÃ©sumÃ©s), the visitors initially were quite shy as they plunged into their brave new world.
But they quickly warmed to their homes-away-from-home, guided skillfully through daily activities by their loving drill sergeant of a leader, Les Sage, the godmother of Ulster Project-Utah since its inception.
They did much good working with the aged at St. Joseph's Villa and the disabled at the Kauri Sue Hamilton School, sorting cans at the Utah Food Bank and serving meals at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, planting willow saplings to stem erosion along a mountain stream.
They had much fun attending the Oakley rodeo on the Fourth of July, cavorting at Lagoon and Seven Peaks Water Park, hiking at Snowbird, rafting on the Green River, shopping, bowling and, at the end of each busy day, just hanging out.
They also shared intimate thoughts in periodic "discovery" sessions, engaging in the kind of soul-searching that can open hearts and minds to accepting noble ideals and forging a willingness to bring them to fruition. Ideals like peace in Northern Ireland.
"The beauty of the Ulster Project is that bridges between faiths and culture happen almost without the teens and parents being aware of them," Kathleen said. "Working and playing together are venues for shared effort and laughter. It's tough to view someone you've worked and played with as an 'other.' "
Fay Losser, a Methodist whose daughter, Kate, is a student at Juan Diego Catholic High School, said it was striking how the bustling flow of activities created a setting in which an individual's faith really did not matter.
"Having them all together, you realize we're all just people. We can all get along. But it takes give and take," she said. "These kids have learned great life skills how to be diplomatic, how to have empathy, how to help each other out."
When their high-school friend Adam Colosimo died after an accident, "it was tough for our Juan Diego girls," Losser added. "But all the other kids were very caring and helped them through that. Some of the Northern Irish had issues going on at home, too, and they were able to talk about it to the other kids. This has been a fabulous time for everyone to realize that everyone has hard times, but with friends, family and talking, you can make it through those hard times."
Lori Cook saw how the Ulster Project made her daughter, Claire, "more reflective about the way she acts and the way she handles herself." And it helped Cook, a first-grade teacher at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City, to see how its methods could be applied to problems such as bullying.
"It's a lot of time and energy, but the friends you make and the community you build are so valuable," she said. "And for kids that age, it could change who they are for the rest of their lives."
Working for peace • Compelled to learn more about the Omagh bombing, we came upon the sad tale of Lorraine Wilson.
She could have been one of these Ulster Project teens. Lorraine was 15, too, a volunteer with the anti-poverty organization Oxfam, when the bomb ended her life.
At her funeral, the priest spoke of hope arising from the tragedy, telling mourners "the dark cloud of evil is being penetrated by numerous acts of love and goodness which are happening all around us."
And so it was in Salt Lake City this past month when Ulster Project-Utah, as it has done 26 times before and will do again, empowered 24 more young people to work for peace and reconciliation.
Families interested in serving as hosts to next year's group of Northern Irish teens may obtain more information at utahulsterproject.org.