HUTCHINSON — Jonny Hampten and Patricia McCooe were both raised in Northern Ireland, but have been coming to Hutchinson every summer for a combined total of 13 years.
They don't come here to vacation or visit relatives, but to break barriers of prejudice and inspire leaders. By doing so they are changing lives and ultimately shaping communities.
Hampten and McCooe are counselors for the Ulster Project of Hutchinson. The annual project brings Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland, a place long divided along religious lines, to a neutral environment where they can learn about each other, form friendships, grow as leaders and ultimately build peace.
Local teens also participate in the project, and Hutchinson families host the Irish teens for the entire month of July.
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"The Ulster Project is an opportunity to bring together young people from Northern Ireland of different religions to show them what it's like to live together without religion being a barrier," McCooe said.
Since 1975 more than 6,100 teens have participated in Ulster Project programs, according to the Ulster Project International website. The project has sites across the United States, but about 100 young people applied for the Ulster Project this summer in Hutchinson and McPherson. Only 20 were selected, 12 for Hutchinson and eight for McPherson.
"The Hutchinson community has really embraced this program over the years," Hampten said. "When we come back and people recognize us and welcome us, that's what keeps us coming back year after year."
Participants are selected based on their enthusiasm and passion for the project, as well as leadership potential, Hampten said.
During the month, the group of Northern Irish and American teens meet daily for activities, such as encounter sessions, social functions, community service projects and worship.
"It's so fantastic to see the young people grow," McCooe said. "By the end, you can really see a change in confidence, understanding and tolerance."
This summer marks Hampten's fifth year as a counselor, and McCooe's eighth. They keep coming back because they see the difference it makes in the lives of young people and in the culture of their hometown.
"You take 12 Irish teens back from Hutchinson, and they have this bond of friendships with people they maybe wouldn't have met if it weren't for the Ulster Project," said Hampten, who grew up in Portadown with separate school systems for Protestants and Catholics. "When they get home they keep these friendships growing, and they bring their other friends on board, and you have a spiderweb effect."
The 12 Irish teens participating in Hutchinson — six Protestants and six Catholics — range in age from 14 to 16. At the end of the program, they return to their hometowns as leaders who often speak about their Ulster experience at church or school, McCooe said.
"Quite often people like to highlight our differences," McCooe said. "But really, this project brings forward our similarities. What the teens find is that our similarities, across nations, significantly outweigh our differences."
Hampten and McCooe arrived in Hutchinson on June 30 and have been staying with Jodi Macklin, who has hosted Hampten for five years and McCooe for four.
"Every year we get to meet 24 wonderful teens and counselors and are reminded of how important it is to open your home to outsiders," Macklin said. "With the Ulster Project, the tentacles never stop reaching. It is life-changing."