WILMINGTON — The summer’s first heat wave had just invaded Wilmington, so it was not unusual to see a few dozen teenagers splashing in the water at Lane Swim Club in Brandywine Hundred. They were getting along like lifelong friends, although most had just met in the previous 24 hours.
Half of those teens were visitors from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, who arrived in the United States on June 27 to take part in Ulster Project Delaware, which brings together Catholic and Protestant young people from that country in the First State. The initiative is now in its 43rd year, making Delaware’s the nation’s longest-running continuous Ulster Project.
Amanda Finn, the coordinator for Ulster Project Delaware, said it started in 1976, when Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland clashed violently. They were brought to the United States in July, “when a lot of the violent protests and marches and parades were happening,” she said.
“The idea was to bring them here and teach them leadership skills so that when they went home they could take that knowledge and be peacemakers instead of continuing problems the older generations had.”
When UPD first started, participating families would have to meet in secret so their neighbors would not know that their children were doing something with those from the other side.
“The very first year, they left in the middle of the night … because they didn’t want their neighbors to know that they were participating in this project,” Finn said. “Now the kids wear their UPD hoodies proudly.”
Two of the Northern Irish teens, Milo Bradley and Eoghan Gormley, battled the heat while shooting hoops at Lane. They said they were looking forward to the month they would be spending in Delaware.
“I just thought it sounded like a good experience, so I got the application and signed up,” said Bradley, 15.
He said his school, which is a mix of Protestants and Catholics, has several teachers who have been part of previous Ulster Projects. He said he wanted to participate to have some fun and experience a different culture.
Gormley, 16, said he is looking forward to going to Hershey Park and to learning about different sports “and meeting new people.” The group — 18 teens from Northern Ireland and 18 from Delaware — had a discovery day on June 28 before heading to the pool.
“It’s already good,” Gormley said. “It’s only going to get better.”
Organizers will keep the kids plenty busy. The agenda for the month includes just four unscheduled days. Activities include a tour of Citizens Bank Park and a Phillies game; canoeing on the Brandywine River; a visit to the beach; trips to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; service at the Bellevue Community Center and the Mary Campbell Center; and houses of worship day, Finn said.
One of the adult leaders is Meaghan Dugan, a 2013 graduate of Padua Academy who participated as a host in 2011. She said she keeps in touch with the girl who stayed with her and has been to see her four times.
“When we say they’re building friendships for life, they really are for life. She’ll be in my life until the end,” Dugan said.
Dugan is the American discovery leader. Her job is developing team-building and bonding activities “and making them uncomfortable and having uncomfortable conversations so they can go home and talk about it, and we can continue having those conversations here in America.”
Finn said finding host families is a more daunting task than in the past. Teenagers are so busy with commitments during the summer, it’s hard to find those who can accept a visitor for a month.
One of this year’s hosts is Nicole Hemphill, who is going to be a sophomore at Cab Calloway School of the Arts. She said having someone you don’t really know in your home is “a little scary,” but only momentarily.
“We’ve been texting, all the teens, for a month, so we sort of know each other, but it’s nice to finally meet each other,” she said. “We’re already so close, and it’s only been a day.”
It has been interesting to see how different the teens are in some respects, but in others they are very similar, Hemphill said. She added that some of the activities will be new to her as well. For example, the Phillies’ game on June 29 was her first trip to Citizens Bank Park.
Dugan said the American youngsters will not regret the commitment they’ve made.
“It’s a daunting responsibility and commitment, but it’s worth it in the end. You carry what you’ve learned throughout your life. It’s this contagious energy you want everybody to feel,” she said.