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Utah Ulster Project helps build harmony between Catholics, Protestants

SALT LAKE CITY — Some 4,500 miles from home, a group of teens from Omagh, Northern Ireland, joined youths from Utah this week in an attempt to cross a narrow cable as a group.

On a ropes course outside the University Neuropsychiatric Institute in Research Park, the teens learned to work as a team, problem-solve, communicate and maintain their balance to get their entire group across a metal cable strung between two posts.

"Come on. You can do it," a teen called out.

"You're almost there," said another.

At long last, the last teen on the wire, a girl from Northern Ireland, inched toward the end of the cable, drawing a cheer from the others.

While the youths are conquering a physical challenge, the activity is also intended to take the teens — who come from a land long divided by sectarian conflict — and their Utah hosts to a place of deeper understanding, friendship and trust.

The Northern Irish teens, six Protestants and six Catholics, are in Utah for the month taking part in the Utah Ulster Project, a local affiliate of an international initiative established in 1975 by an Anglican priest intended to break down decades of religious and political division in Northern Ireland.

This is the 31st year Utah's Ulster Project has hosted Northern Irish teens who stay with families in Salt Lake County for the duration of their visits.

The experience is life-changing for participants and their respective families, said Mike O’Brien, president of Utah Ulster Project. Many Northern Irish teens have had little contact with youths of other faiths, until they come to Utah.

J.P. Murray of Omagh, who is Catholic, said he had not been inside a Protestant church until his arrival in Salt Lake City.

"I've had insight into Protestant traditions, what they are doing in their services that we don't have as Catholics," said J.P., who is 15.

"If you're a Catholic (in Omagh), it's unacceptable to be friends with Protestants and anything like that. It's not allowed to do it. If you are, like all your friends discriminate against you."

As he learns more about his hosts and teens from Northern Ireland who come from other faith traditions, J.P. said he hopes that the takeaway is "making me be able to make peace between them" at home.

While bridging that divide is the overarching goal of the program, the Utah Ulster Project also provides a wide array of experiences that take the youth out of their comfort zones, such as interacting with children with profound disabilities, visiting senior citizens at St. Joseph Villa and serving families experiencing homelessness.

"That's the one that hits home the most," said Utah Ulster Project counselor Adam Dahlberg of the group's visits to the Road Home.

The project is also an opportunity to have fun as teenagers, whether the youths shop, spend the day at Lagoon or go on a river trip.

Cara Moore, 15, of Omagh, said she is learning a lot about other people and herself while in Utah.

"I'm learning to work with new people and to respect other people's views and religion and learning different things. Like we went to a chapel that I'd never been to before and it was a really different experience. So I really enjoyed that, and I've enjoyed working as a team with all the other teens from America. It's been really worthwhile," she said.

Dahlberg said it is gratifying to see the youths transition from the "impress phase. They're teenagers. They're trying to impress everybody. Then halfway through, something sort of switches in them and they finally realize, 'I'm not here to impress. I'm here to become a better person.' They kind of let that wall down a little bit, and the experience becomes that much better."

UNI ROPES Program facilitators guided the group through challenges that were physically demanding but also opportunities to reflect how the experiences might enrich their time together as participants of the Utah Ulster Project.

After using teamwork to enable their group to cross an outstretched cable, ropes course facilitator Susan Truong asked the teens what they had to do to accomplish their goal.

"We need to listen to each other," said Chloe Thompson, a Salt Lake teen whose family is hosting an Ulster youth.

"We need to be there to support each other."

Erin O'Brien Dalhberg, who directs the program after participating as a host youth and working as a counselor, said the experience also builds leadership skills and confidence.

"You see the shiest kids just come out of their shells and really become leaders, so it's awesome to see," she said.

Sometimes, counselors work to broker peace among the teens.

A couple of years ago, two Northern Irish teens started the experience "hating each other," O'Brien Dahlberg said.

They eventually worked through their differences to the point they occasionally post their get-togethers in Northern Ireland on Snapchat," she said.

Mike O'Brien said some of the friendships forged through the Utah Ulster Project have lasted for decades.

"We have a Facebook page and one of the individuals posted on there just today that she had been in the project 26 years ago. She’s a Northern Irish woman. As a teen she was here 26 years ago and she made what she calls ‘lifelong friends’ with a Salt Lake teen.

"They’re both, of course, now adults and they have their own kids and they’re getting together this year so their children can meet each other. It's great."

Each of O'Briens' three children have taken part in the program, and they've forged lasting friendships, too.

"We did the project with our middle daughter in 2010, six years ago. We actually went back and stayed with the family of the girl that we hosted. They’re like our Northern Irish family. We communicate with them regularly. One of their daughters came out for our daughter’s wedding. So there really are close bonds," he said.

While this year's group has been together in Utah for just a week, Cara, who is a Protestant, said she has already learned that people from other faith traditions are not all that different from one another once people get to know each other as individuals.

"They're not (different). They're really not. It's just the conflict that's been stopping us from making friends with other people," she said.