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Catholic and Protestant teens from Northern Ireland spend time in the Lake Area as part of the Ulster Project peace initiative. (Special to the American Press)

Catholic and Protestant teens from Northern Ireland spend time in the Lake Area as part of the Ulster Project peace initiative. (Special to the American Press)

Northern Ireland teens in SW La. as part of Ulster Project

Last Modified: Monday, July 07, 2014 3:09 PM

By Warren Arceneaux / American Press

Eight teenagers from Northern Ireland are learning about America, and each other, during a visit to Southwest Louisiana as part of the Ulster Project peace initiative.

The program is designed to end long-standing troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. As part of the program, four Catholic teens and four Protestant teens from Omagh, Northern Ireland spend time with each other while visiting Louisiana.

The Ulster Project was started in 1975. The visiting kids are hosted by teenagers from the area.

Host Paula Johnson said the program benefits the visitors and hosts.

“Our goal is to bring peace to Northern Ireland and to build leadership among our kids here,” she said. “Because the Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants are segregated, this discovery program shows them that they really are the same inside. We have eight teens and two adult chaperones that came from Northern Ireland. We have eight local teens and two youth leaders from Southwest Louisiana.”

Johnson said the friendships formed on the visits are often lasting ones.

“People that are in their 30s now still talk about coming over on those trips,” she said. “Sometimes they come back to visit as adults and stay with the same families they stayed with as teenagers.”

Johnson said serving as hosts helps the local participants mature.

“I like seeing the changes it makes in the kids, it really does make a difference in their lives,” she said. “The shy ones come out of their shells. They learn how to behave, how they are supposed to act.”

During the month-long trip, the participants participate in community service, social and recreational activities.

“Hal McMillan sponsors a trip to Schlitterbahn water park,” Johnson said. “We are making a trip to Lafayette to experience some of the culture there. They are going on airboat rides at Rockerfeller Refuge. They will have swim parties, they have a good time while they are here.”

Gareth McFarland is an adult chaperon from Omagh.

“Back home we have been going for about six months, having meetings, doing activities to get to know each other,” he said. “We were doing fund raising for the trip over here. This trip is an opportunity for American families to play a part in helping Catholic and Protestants to get along, both in Ireland and here. We went on a retreat at the St. Charles Center in Moss Bluff, we went to the water park in Sulphur, that was good, we don’t have a water park back home.

“The people are pretty similar. All the people here say they are Irish anyway so it feels like a home away from home. I want to get to know the Louisiana way of life. I have worked with children back home for a long time, to get to work with young people from another country is pretty special.”

Bonita Clarke is one of the visitors from Omagh.

“I love everything,” she said. “The retreat brought everyone together, it is like a big family know. We get to learn about different cultures. They ask us about how things are in Northern Ireland. We have learned about the weather and hurricanes here. I hope to have good friendships that last for years and hope that the Americans can come over to Ireland to see how we live and bring the cultures together. I am Protestant, the family I am staying with is Catholic, I went to their chapel to see how they worship, it was amazing to see.”

Josh Benoit is participating in the program for a second year.

“I have enjoyed meeting new people and getting to experience the Irish culture,” he said. “I still hear from people that were here last year, we talk about what is going on in the city and everything. I try to teach them about our culture and the food.”

Breana Moreno is a first-time host.

“This is my first year, I enjoy being able to hang out with the Irish kids, hearing their accents and getting to know the American kids,” she said. “They tell us about how different our food is from theirs, how different their economy is, how hard it is to get different brands of stuff there. Most of the Irish kids are outgoing so it is not hard to get to know them.”

Moreno said everyone could learn from the Irish teens.

“Even though there are some small differences that can cause disagreements, all of the Irish kids are overlooking them,” she said. “Any one can do that.”

Warren Arceneaux writes a weekly column on interesting people in Southwest Louisiana each Monday. Have a story idea about someone in Southwest Louisiana? Call him weekdays at 494-4087. E-mail him at

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