For many children around the world this month marks the end of summer and the start of the school year. For most, the act of getting to school is a relatively simple one: walk, bike or get a ride. Not too much to think about.
Thirteen years ago, for the children of Wheatfield Primary School and Holy Cross Primary School in North Belfast it wasn’t that simple. Students walked to school amid a torrent of abuse that no child should have to experience. The extreme nature of the situation caused headlines around the world. Once again Belfast was in the news – for all the wrong reasons.
While the outside world remembers these events as a scar on the landscape of Northern Ireland’s history, we at PPI-NI remember them for a different reason. These events were the impetus for the very first primary school Twinning. When PPI-NI brought together the Catholic and Protestant students from these two schools for a day of basketball and community relations conversations, we started something that would change this city in a fundamental way.
Through the Twinning program PPI-NI provides schools with an effective way to help bring together children from both sides of the historical political divide. Rather than simply being a diversionary sports programme, schools have access to trained coaches who can also deliver an effective community relations curriculum.
Over the past 13 years PPI-NI has strived to improve the Twinning programme. From ensuring that logistics run smoothly to the selection process for coaches and improving the curriculum, the Twinning programme in NI now runs like a well-oiled machine. From those humble beginnings has come a proven, effective tool to teach children how to manage the conflict that is a part of their lives on a daily basis.
We at PPI-NI are proud to have worked with 32 schools to deliver 16 Twinnings during the past academic year. While 22 of these schools are located in Belfast, we have begun to work with 10 schools located outside of the city in the towns of Ballymena, Bangor and Lurgan. Through all of our programmes PPI-NI worked with around 2400 children last year. Thanks to sound management practices, these 8-week programmes cost on average a mere £100 per participant to deliver.
What about Wheatfield and Holy Cross today? PPI-NI has made a long-term commitment to these schools and has engaged them in Twinnings for each of the past 13 years. In 2007 PPI received an award from ESPN based partially on the work it has done with these two schools. In that same year the schools participated in the Game of Three Halves for the first time, where the children played Gaelic football, rugby and soccer on integrated teams; something unthinkable a decade earlier.
We’d be lying if we said that all of the sectarian problems in Belfast have vanished. Clearly they haven’t. But as we gear up for year 14 its important to note that we have made a difference, our reach is growing and we are determined to help improve life for the people of Northern Ireland.