The countries of Ireland and Northern Ireland are filled with many wonders and each have a rich cultural heritage that people around the world identify with. It also has a tumultuous and violent past that saw the country split into two factions that has left cultural, political and religious divides. For decades youth have grown up in a society that is still trying to heal these wounds.
This year HEROS International marks its 11th year bringing youth together from opposite sides of this divide. Hockey isn’t a commonly played sport in Ireland making it an activity that is free of connections to past historical conflict providing a perfect platform to build cross border reconciliation and promote dialogue.
HEROS International is a six-month program that includes activities both on and off the ice. This year 48 youth from six communities in Dublin, Belfast and Northern Scotland came together to learn the game of hockey and develop key life-skills. Beginning in January 2018 participants engaged in activities that promoted acceptance, tolerance and teamwork in their local communities. Over one weekend in the spring of 2018, participants came together to make initial introductions and showcase the work they had been doing back home in their communities. The program ended with a five-day camp in August in the style of a Canadian Hockey School. During the camp participants engaged in activities including nine ice time sessions, community and team building exercises and drug awareness training.
“The pace at which these kids are able to pick up the game, often quicker than their Canadian peers, continues to amaze organizers, volunteers and family.” Players go from lacing up their skates on their first day ever on the ice, to playing in front of friends and family just four days later, at a pace that would not be unusual to see in any rink in a community in Canada. The collective sense of accomplishment and achievement that all the players gained from the program helps break down the barriers that past generations have built in front of them.
This program would not be possible without the work and effort of local HEROS International partners and volunteers. Local partners work year-round to help make the program a success, all fundraising takes place in the communities the young people come from, and volunteers are drawn from those same communities. This year HEROS was able to send four volunteers, who graciously donated their personal time away from their jobs, to participate in on ice and off ice activities.
HEROS International seeks to promote mutual understanding and co-operation in a community that has been torn apart by strife that has lasted generations. It’s an incredible example how a shared and positive vision of the future can bring together people from four different countries and very different backgrounds.