March 27-April 4, 2013

Have you ever experienced a whirlwind? Thinking about the Amizade service-learning trip ready to come my way: 8 days in 4 U.S. states, with 15 Irish boys and men, and me as the only female…that’s exactly what I thought was about to hit my life in full force.

Northern Irish Youth Visiting New York with AmizadeAs I waited in JFK airport for my group to arrive after their long journey from Belfast to New York City, I wondered how I would recognize them as they sauntered through the doorway. Then the light bulb went off, and I realized from this point forward I would know these guys from their strong Northern Irish accents and their gregarious conversations. Even the crowded streets of New York would be no match for this group of young men. Before I knew it, some of the most incredible people entered my life. I was with the group to help them learn and serve different communities, however, I quickly came to find, I had just as much to learn myself.

One may question how to decipher when Amizade group members feel a change in themselves as a result of their service-learning experiences. I know for a fact that this spark of self-realization, discovery, compassion, and growth happens at different times and in different places for each individual. Collectively, Amizade hopes every person involved will experience a positive difference in their own lives, and make a positive impact in the lives of others as well. I saw this time and again among this group of 15 and 16-year-old youths as they stepped out of their culture and comfort zones, and began to see life from a new perspective.

I ask again, how do you know when a change happens within someone? I can visualize such personal advances of our group members in New York thanks to Theatre of the Oppressed, who enabled our youth to go from timid boys afraid to get out of their chairs, to young men using their physical bodies and powerful voices as a means of expression. They now realize what they have to say is important and should not be squelched, but heard by others. I saw it in Pittsburgh as our youth used their intelligence and increasingly strengthened communication skills to navigate this new city alone in order to accomplish difficult tasks given to them as a scavenger hunt; only to later cultivate additional leadership skills by becoming integrated with another group of youth from completely different backgrounds. Together, these boys learned about leadership and character development through the wisdom disseminated by motivational speaker Tom Baker and Ambassador Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. One must always remember, however, character development, leadership skills, and bravery can only take you so far in life. Without trusting yourself, and later finding the ability to trust in others, we cannot fully attain success. With this in mind, our students challenged themselves on West Virginia University’s ropes course. Safety harnesses and high ropes meant nothing until our group had confidence they could overcome dangerous and frightening conditions, and prove whatever comes their way in the future is just another hurdle to conquer before achieving a goal of great magnitude.

As one personal adventure led to another, our group of Irish youth continued to notice each community’s different dynamic, and the community members that made up every landscape. They knew this journey was about personal growth, but they also had insight enough to recognize despite challenges they encountered in their own lives, others in the world often experience difficulties that cannot be overcome without support from people like them. You never know who will touch your life. Will it be someone rich and famous, or someone less expected? We quickly discovered everyone has something great to offer the world. In fact, some of our students expressed their most impactful experience on this entire whirlwind came from Steve, a homeless man living in Washington D.C., who shared his life story with us, and imparted how one’s life circumstance may change in an instant; but regardless of who are families are and how different are beliefs may seem, we can all learn from each other and live better lives as a result.

Grateful encompasses the sentiment I feel when thinking about this group of Irish youth and their leaders. They are the essence of strength, compassion, determination, and growth, and I thank them for allowing me to share in such a powerful experience.

-Suzanne Unger, Amizade Washington, DC Site Director