It’s good for them to get away from their parents and peers and get over here where there’s no prejudice and they don’t have to live up to anything. – Les Sage, program director for the Ulster Project
SALT LAKE CITY — A group of teenagers climbed on a big wooden platform Thursday at the ROPES Challenge Course in the scorching Utah heat.
But it wasn't just any platform. It was built like a seesaw, and the youngsters had to balance together to keep all four edges from touching the ground.
“If they’re not all working together, it doesn’t happen,” said Pete Loebach, a ROPES course facilitator.
It wasn't just any group of 15-year-olds slathered in sunscreen, either. They were a group of teenagers from Northern Ireland — half Protestant, half Catholic, with their teens from their American host families.
The group of 12 teenagers from Omagh, Northern Ireland, are part of the Ulster Project, an international program designed to encourage peace, understanding and harmony between Catholics and Protestants.
The teens stay with American host families for one month, doing service projects, outdoor activities and, most importantly, spending time getting to know each other.
Sara Ewing, a Protestant from Northern Ireland, said she sees segregation every day at her Protestant school where kids look down on the few Catholic students there.
After arriving in the U.S., Sara met up with her Catholic host family.
"They don't make (religion) a big difference here. I don't even know a difference," she said.
Sara's twin American host teenagers deemed her the "summer triplet," she said. "It was as if we've known each other forever."
Cormac Coney, a Catholic from Northern Ireland, climbed suspended wooden poles at the ROPES course with his teammate, Jack Hannigan, who is Protestant.
"You completely rely on the other person," Cormac said. "There's no way you can do it on your own."
Once you get to know a person, he said, there's no difference between Catholics and Protestants. At home, Cormac said he can instantly tell which kids belong to which faith, and if they're not of the same faith, "you don't come into contact as much."
He said his experience thus far in the U.S. has made him want to talk to more people and get to know them. When he arrived, he knew only one person in his group, he now knows all 11.
"I'm glad I got to know them," Cormac said.
Les Sage, program director for the Ulster Project, said the project is a time for the two groups “to get away for a month and realize that they’re all teens and they’re all the same.”
"Segregation is still going with us," she said. "And it's still going with the kids in Northern Ireland."
Sage said the teenagers are together every day, all day, "just so they can be together and bond."
"If you saw these kids now, you wouldn't be able to tell who is American, who is Irish, who is Catholic, who is Protestant," Sage said at a swimming party for the teens.
In her 25 years with the program, Sage said she's seen "total success." She has traveled to Ireland to visit some of the past participants and said all of the kids got together, something she said they couldn't do before.
"It's good for them to get away from their parents and peers and get over here where there's no prejudice and they don't have to live up to anything," she said.
Brandan Haughey was a teen in the program in 2007. Now, he's back in Utah as a counselor. Haughey said he didn't want to sound cliché, but for him, the experience was life-changing.
Haughey said he has seen improvements in the segregation, especially programs like the Ulster Project, but "the problems haven't gone away."
It's especially tough for kids, he said, because they grow up a segregated environment.
“Once you know someone personally, you realize you aren’t any different,” Haughey said, adding that he still keeps in touch with his group from 2007.
Abbey Flick, an American host teenager, said after the initial awkwardness when using Skype to chat with her new roommate from Northern Ireland, Ciara Murray, the two are "almost exactly alike."
"We like all the same things so it's easy," Abby said, describing Ciara as the sister she never had.
Abby said she's not used to people fighting about religion.
"It's nice to help them overcome that barrier," she said.