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Local Hill District teens head to Northern Ireland as they begin to board a bus at the Hill House Association.
 Prayer as Local Hill District teens head to Northern Ireland

Students and parents gather in prayer outside the Hill House before leaving on a cultural and service exchange trip to Ireland Sunday.

Students and chaperones board the bus to the airport Sunday as they leave on a cultural and service exchange trip to Northern Ireland. Ten students and five chaperones will spend 10 days there. (Below) Students and parents gather in prayer outside the Hill House before leaving on a cultural and service exchange trip to Ireland Sunday.

 

A chance encounter in 2009 is opening a door to Northern Ireland for 10 teenagers who live in the Hill District.

On Sunday morning, they climbed aboard a bus at the Hill House Association and today they are in Ireland, courtesy of yearlong fundraising and a group of Irish hosts eager to return years of Hill District hospitality.

This trip is the first by local youth in what otherwise has been an exchange of visits between groups from Northern Ireland and program organizers in the Hill.

In 2009, a group of Irish artists and educators attended a conference in Pittsburgh and met Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at Hill House, who gave them a tour of the neighborhood.

“One of the women said, ‘This reminds me of home’ ” — Newry, County Down, Ms. Baltimore said. “She went back and raised money to have three of us go to Ireland in 2011.”

In 2012, a youth group from Newry came to Pittsburgh. Children from the Hill District threw a Halloween party for them.

The relationship has grown with efforts of the Hill House, Hill District Consensus Group, McAuley Ministries, Ujamaa Collective — a cooperative of female-owned, retail craft enterprises — and Amizade, a locally based nonprofit that organizes service and learning experiences in 12 countries.

During visits to the Hill, Irish youth shared their stories about challenges they face with education, violence and other social ills, said Cheryl Hall-Russell, Hill House CEO.

“They’re white and Irish and don’t sound anything like us, but it was remarkable to see the parallels,” she said. “They want to be leaders, just like we do. When the kids here started talking to them, it was magical. From surface nervousness to real conversations.”

For QuiAnte Anderson, 16, the excitement of this 10-day trip began with getting on a plane for the first time.

“My passion is to go out and discover the world,“ she said. ”I want to be surprised. I don’t want to have expectations. An open mind is open to things you might be uncomfortable with. I want to expand my horizons.”

Mark Twain described travel as “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” James Baldwin’s famous quote — “I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself” — would resonate with the young people in YouthWorks, an advocacy organization in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In an email, Stephen Hughes, its director, wrote that an important impact of the exchange has been “a change in our youth’s perceptions of themselves and their community.”

“They come from very challenging backgrounds and were involved in some serious criminal behaviours,” he wrote. “The community has suffered severely as a result of the Northern Ireland conflict and many of them have family or friends directly affected by the violence.”

He wrote that visits to the Hill District have had a positive effect on them. “Our young people had a life-changing experience” that has made them “more empathetic, understanding and humane.”

Irish youth raised $3,000 to help their Hill District peers cover costs. Donations of about $42,000 came in before the trip, a large portion from McAuley Ministries, said Jeffrey Anderson, chief operating officer at Hill House.

The students visiting Ireland were chosen based on an essay and interview. They researched Irish history, customs and culture and will use donated iPads and a journal to chronicle their trip for a report when they return.

“They are ambassadors and we let them know the importance of representing their families, the Hill District and Hill House,” Mr. Anderson said.

The students will meet the lord mayor of Belfast and the U.S. consulate general, attend a legislative session, tour the Titanic museum and Carrickfergus Castle and join Irish counterparts for cookouts, recreation and discussions.

“For our kids to leave behind the familiar and take a leap into the unknown is such an opportunity,” Ms. Baltimore said. “I like the idea that our kids will come back as citizens of the world.”

Brandon Blache-Cohen, executive director of Lawrenceville-based Amizade, said the exchange offers “opportunities for solidarity.”

“We have a vision that these types of cultural exchange experiences don’t have to be a luxury anymore, because there is too much value in them for young people,” he said. “These kids will spend 10 days in Ireland, and that can make a difference in what they do the rest of their lives.”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

Date Published: 
Thursday, July 9, 2015

 

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