Ulster Project: Five Decades of Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges

Ulster Project Delaware teens and leaders enjoying a day in Philadelphia

A great deal has changed in Northern Ireland since the mid-1970’s era that saw violent clashes between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists.  It was a time of hunger strikes and bombings, a period of tragedy and trauma for far too many Irish children.

Amid this turmoil Ulster Project Delaware (UPD) was born, an ambitious effort to bridge the divide of religion and culture, to heal wounds of war and provide hope and a path forward for young people caught in an ugly crossfire. 

UPD was founded in 1976 by the late Charles and Josephine Robinson in conjunction with Canon Kerry Waterstone of the Church of Ireland in Tullymore, Ireland, as a program to promote reconciliation between Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant teenagers. 

Kiera McCormick (Padua Academy), Erin Ritchie (Padua Academy), and Greta Jones (Archmere) each had a Northern Irish teen stay with them and their families for the month

Nearly five decades later the worst of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” have subsided, yet UPD has continued to nurture understanding and forgiveness by bringing Irish teenagers to Delaware each summer to live with families of both Catholic and Protestant faiths.

Chalfonte’s Nathan Taylor and his family participated in UPD for the first time this summer, and he is already looking forward to being involved next year and even someday visiting his new Irish friend James McIntyre on his home turf.  The rising St. Mark’s High School sophomore said he would “one hundred percent recommend” UPD to other local families.  

“The experience of getting to know James and learning about his culture and community was really cool,” said Taylor.  “But this program was also great because I met and learned from so many people from Ireland and also right here in Delaware … I have made so many new friends and feel like I’m part of a special community.”

UPD has just wrapped up another successful session so we checked in with program coordinator Amanda Finn to see how the organization has continued to make its mission so relevant and impactful.

TSD: How many years has the program been running in Delaware?

AF: Ulster Project Delaware just completed our 43rd project.  We are the oldest continually running Ulster Project in the country.

TSD: How many Irish students participated this year? 

Finn: 18 teenagers from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, participated in the program this summer – nine boys, nine girls, nine Protestant, nine Catholic. 

Students in the Ulster Project Delaware program also participate in service projects

TSD: Tell us about your host families –

Finn: We recruit host families from all over New Castle County – Wilmington, Newark, Middletown, Hockessin, Pike Creek … We’ll start recruiting for 2019 in the fall.  We recruit in the schools; we hold information sessions for students and sometimes present at PTA meetings.  We recruit in churches; we speak at services and present to youth groups.  We also hold information sessions at local libraries.  

TSD: You have a robust program of activities for the students –

Finn: We take day trips to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York City, an amusement park, and the beach. We do service projects — this year we spent time at Mary Campbell Center and Bellevue Community Center.  We run what we call the Discovery Program; each Discovery Day is designed to foster teamwork, to build confidence and leadership, and to cultivate understanding and acceptance of those who are different from oneself. 

Good clean fun

TSD: How do you measure success – and do you stay in touch with alumni students and families?

Finn: Tensions in Northern Ireland have improved since UPD first started in 1976, and we believe that this due in part to programs like ours which work to create new generations of peacemakers.  

We maintain strong ties with our past UPD teens and their families both here and in Northern Ireland.  We have a very active Facebook group which allows past participants to follow the journey each summer and to keep in touch with each other.  Many past participants stay involved by serving on the board, being a leader, sponsoring an event for the teens during the summer program, or hosting a leader.  We also have a lot of second-generation participants, both American and Northern Irish.

TSD: Who funds the program?

Finn: We apply for grants from various foundations to fund the program.  We also receive generous donations from UPD alums and families who are looking to give back to the program.  The rest of the funding comes from our fundraising efforts; we hold a 5K and a car wash each summer, a shamrock sale each spring, and various other fundraisers throughout the year.

TSD: How long have you been leading the program?  And what drew you to the role?

AF: I’ve been involved with UPD since 2012 and have served in my current role as the Delaware Coordinator for UPD since 2016.  While I did not participate in the program as a teen myself, I’m a teacher and have had many former students participate in the program.  I saw the positive change in these young people and was compelled to get involved.  What I’ve always loved about our program is that it recognizes the power young people have to show leadership and promote change; our program doesn’t believe that one has to wait to be an adult to have a voice.  At a time in our country when young people are taking a stand, I take pride in the fact that our program has been encouraging this action in young people for forty-three years.

TSD: Any observations on what has changed over the years in terms of the program – the students, families involved, activities? 

Students proudly wear their Ulster Project Delaware t-shirts and hoodies as they head back to Ireland

Finn: When UPD first began, the group traveling to Delaware from Portadown, Northern Ireland, had to leave in the middle of the night because the families didn’t want their neighbors to know that their children were participating in a cross-community project for fear that they might be targeted by those who didn’t agree with the mission of such programs.  All of the planning meetings prior to their trip were held at the town hospital as it was the only neutral space; a Catholic would never set foot in a Protestant church or in the home of a Protestant (and vice versa).  Now, our Northern Irish participants return home proudly wearing their UPD hoodies.


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