Mario Gribbon and Keith Neill have a lot in common.

Mario Gribbon and Keith Neill have a lot in common.

The two men from Northern Ireland share many values and a genuine heart for youth. However, because one was raised Catholic and the other grew up Protestant, society told them they couldn't get along.

The Ulster Project changed their perspective.

"This is what the Ulster Project is doing," Gribbon said. "It's basically saying, 'Yeah, there's diversity there, but diversity doesn't mean division. It means we celebrate the diversity because we can all learn from each other.'"

Ireland is rooted in 800 years of conflict that is cultural, political and religious. The divide is most sharply seen in Northern Ireland, which consists of six counties in the providence of Ulster. There, Catholics and Protestants have a long history of violence, tension and self-isolation due to a number of historical events and loyalties.

The Ulster Project began in 1975 to begin addressing the need for peace. Following an extended pastoral exchange with a clergyman in Connecticut, a reverend from the Church of Ireland saw the way Americans could live peacefully in their own cultural melting pot. This sparked an initiative to bring this same mindset to youth from Northern Ireland through visits to the United States.

First Ulster Project

Gribbon and Neill were young teens in the first group of 28. The group participated in many activities together, but it wasn't until years later when they realized how much the experience influenced their lives.

Both had returned home, moved away from their hometown of Portadown and married. In their eyes, the Ulster Project was over. However, in preparation for a 25th anniversary of their trip, they received letters requesting they write about their experiences.

"As I started to look back," Neill said, "all the sort of things the project means — the leadership qualities, the fact of tolerance, the fact of working together — for me in my life in youth work as a pastor, it just threaded through from that time. That's where the seed was planted."

Both have been in leadership within the Ulster Project since and devote much of their own time to helping young people experience what they did many years ago.

Gribbon, a school headmaster, still keeps in touch with his host family.

"Those people have had such an influence on my life and the choices I made," he said. "That's why I'm still very passionate about this project. Passion is not a strong enough word to describe how I feel about it. We're committed to it in word and in deed because we just know the children involved on both sides of the Atlantic are going to gain so much from this."

Changed lives

The duo said they are a testament to the lifelong friendships that are established through the project, both between countries and among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Gribbon describes most people on the two sides in Northern Ireland as living close together but in separate worlds. For example, for a long time he and Neill lived only two miles apart but rarely saw each other. This is the society youth live in but did not choose.

The Ulster Project changes that.

Neill said he remembers one girl returning from her time in the United States.

"She bounced through the door and said, 'It was brilliant. Loved it. And you know something? They were just the same as me.' And her mom said, 'What did you expect? For them to have horns?' And (the daughter) actually turned around and said, 'Yes, I did.'

"Those stories never would have happened. We've seen just a success of people who have gone through. It really does seem to be the people who are going and doing things in their careers that influence others. They're going to teach hundreds and hundreds of people in their life about tolerance and that there isn't a difference."

In many ways, Gribbon said this is because of their age.

"It allows the kids who are separated through their normal lives an opportunity to engage in a non-threatening, secure environment where they can develop real, meaningful, lasting friendships," he said. "When you think about it, it's not rocket science, it's given them a wee bit of time and wee bit of space for young people to be together.

"We're taking young people at a very impressionable age — and just for that movement from childhood to adulthood — and showing them a way of life that is in their grasp if they make the right choices. They're thinking is being challenged. They're being faced with things they've never thought of before at a critical time in their lives. And I think it's making an impression on all those kids."

And although conflict is still present in Northern Ireland, the project is making a difference one youth at a time.

"You have planted a seed that is going to take root, and it's going to change their lives for the better," Gribbon said. "I do believe the project in general has made a significant, positive impact on society. This is just an experience that enlivens you. It makes you feel good to be alive."


Gribbon and Neill were in town to prepare for the 2013 Ulster Project International Peace Conference Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 in Hutchinson.

This year's batch of Ulster Project teens will be in the area in July. The project first came to McPherson seven years ago.

Roberta Burghart, area Ulster president, said openings are still available for two local male youth to be involved. For details, call 245-0617.

To learn more, about the project, visit

Contact Jenae Pauls at and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSen