The Hampton Rotary has been involved in the Friends Forever program, which brings Muslim and Jewish teens from Israel to the U.S. in order to generate mutual understanding. Pictured here is this year's group, along with their advisors.
For almost two decades the Hampton Rotary Club has been an avid sponsor of the Friends Forever program. This program, founded in 1986, has as its mission the development of cross-community friendships and the elimination of prejudice and stereotyping in areas of conflict. Recently, the Hampton club was host to two groups of teenagers, one each from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Israel.
Each group of 10 teens, aged 15 to 16 years, and their two leaders, spends two weeks in New England with an American youth leader. The groups are evenly mixed by gender and religion, the Israelis are both Jewish and Muslim, and the Northern Irish are Catholic and Protestant.
The students apply for the opportunity to participate in the program, and are chosen based on both leadership ability and a desire to make a peaceful change in their community.
The first phase of the program is the "life raft" experience, derived from the notion that if you really want to get to know someone, sit next to them in a life raft for two weeks. Taken out of the comfort zone of their familiar surroundings and families, these kids soon learn about one another and develop long-term friendships.
These are fostered by the second or perpetuation phase of the program that continues for an entire year following their return to their home country.
While here, each group lives as a family in one home. To the casual observer, the visit may have the appearance of a fun vacation. It is more appropriately described as an awesome, life changing experience.
Events include a challenge course and high ropes experience at the Brown Center at UNH, dialogue sessions with students and faculty at local high schools, and opportunities of public speaking at local Rotary Clubs. Although the latter is clearly a little intimidating for some of the students, it is obvious that they are grateful for the opportunity that would not otherwise be available without the support of Rotary.
Each group attends two religious services. For many, this is the first time that they have set foot in a Catholic Church, mosque, or synagogue. They also participate in community service work, including helping out at a local soup kitchen.
Interspersed with these challenges there are trips to Boston, a UNH hockey game and a chance to get up for a scenic flight in a small plane at Hampton Airfield.
For years, local businesses have assisted the Rotary Clubs in sponsoring the Friends Forever program. The Airfield Café has provided lunch following the airplane experience and Regal Limousine has "wowed" repeated groups by transporting them to a Rotary meeting in a stretch limo, an experience described as "absolutely brilliant" by the Belfast kids.
The camaraderie that evolves over the two week program is uplifting. These teens have returned to live and work (and, ultimately,) raise families in the shadow of inherent regional conflict. Their thoughts and reflections are the reason that the Hampton Rotary Club, and countless other supporters, continue to participate in this program.
One teen wrote: "While retaining our identities, many of us have been changed," and another wrote: "The trip has changed me, as now I don't just stand back if my family or friends make prejudicial remarks. I am now ready to make a point of telling them they are wrong."