KNOXVILLE - An East Tennessee organization is helping Northern Ireland teenagers overcome decades of religious and social segregation.
The Ulster Project of East Tennessee brings 30 teenagers from Northern Ireland to America each summer. The teens live with host families and learn about American culture and work to break down barriers between participants of different religions.
"A lot of kids would have their own sports teams that are predominantly protestant or predominantly Catholic and wouldn't really hang out with the other side of the community," Stuart O'Neill said. O'Neill is a native of North Ireland who moved to Knoxville 16 years ago.
In the late 1960s, the conflict over whether North Ireland should stay a member of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland divided the nation. A majority of protestants wanted to stay in the UK, while almost exclusively Catholics wanted to join the Republic of Ireland.
In 1998 the conflict officially ended with the Good Friday Agreement.
"We're still trying to bring both sides of the community together because there's still a little bit of mistrust," O'Neill said.
Those who have participated in the Ulster Project said the experience is life-changing.
"At my school we would never get to mix with protestant people from different schools," Ryan McGinn said via Skype from Northern Ireland.
After the trip to East Tennessee, McGinn, a Catholic, and Lewis Callen, a protestant, are best friends.
The project is also impactful for those who open their homes to the students. Stephanie Richter and her family has hosted students over multiple summers.
"A defining moment for me was one of the kids looked at me and said 'I've never had a Catholic friend before now,'" Ricther said. "Where they go to church on Sunday morning doesn't change the basic values that they share. Friendships shouldn't be defined solely by religion and they can be instruments of peace even though they're teenagers."
Ulster Project of East Tennessee is hosting "A Taste of Ireland" fundraiser on Saturday, March 11 at St. Mary's Church in Oak Ridge.
The event will feature Irish food and drink plus music, dancing and a silent auction.
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