Working with Catholic and Protestant Youth in Northern Ireland
Along with five other Washburn students, I volunteered for Youth Works in Northern Ireland. Youth Works is a cross-community program that provides a positive social environment and activities for young people. Since the ceasefire agreement in 1999, there has been a push to end sectarianism and help develop peace and reconciliation between the Catholics and Protestants. I spent a week as a volunteer leader on a residential holiday where young people ages 15 to 17, from various cities could camp in the coastal mountains outside of Rostrevor in County Down.
Joel, another Washburn student and I directed a group of Catholic and Protestant young people in a team building exercise. In cities like Belfast, most young people grow up in divided neighborhoods and attend separate schools. For many, they had never had to work together with peers from the other side of the divide.
Joel and Dr. Kapusta-Pofahl had fun during lunch with young people from Portadown, Belfast, and Ballymena. In between activities, humor was never in short supply. We learned fast the people of Northern Ireland were seldom introverted. We were surprised to learn how open everyone was to discussing the troubles.
While volunteering, I made many close friends. I especially got to know some of the young people in my group. Both Jamie and Tyson are Catholic. Jamie is from Armagh and Tyson is from Ballymena. Both of them have fathers who were on the Republican side of the conflict. We were able to bond easily over our families’ Gaelic heritage.
Kevin McGuckin, the director of Youth Works was clowning around with some of the young people who were still trying to wake up. Every night I would work with one of the program directors to make sure the young people stayed in their rooms in the hostel at night. Even after a full day of mountain climbing, ocean sports, and hiking, the young people of Northern Ireland would keep joking and talking until early morning. Northern Ireland was not for the introverted and quiet types.
On the final night of my stay as a volunteer for Youth Works, we took an evening hike in the mountains. Saying goodbye was the hardest thing I had to do. I am still in touch with Jamie, Tyson, and all of the other young people in my group. I have kept in touch with Kevin and after I graduate, I hope to return to Belfast and work for Youth Works for as long as I can. I have also looked into a masters program in Belfast so that I won’t have to leave Ireland.