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Playing for Peace

In September of 2001, Eileen Gill did her part to end the conflict in Northern Ireland. Eileen, who was 11 at the time, participated in a youth sports camp that brought Protestants and Catholics together in the spirit of playful cooperation, friendship, and competition.

In Northern Ireland, the common sight of violence makes children grow up fast. Eileen, who is Catholic, was unhappy because some Protestants and Catholics refuse to get along. “The children don't want to be a part of it,” she said. “They want it stopped, and it should be stopped.”

Getting Along

Eileen decided to go to the peace camp, a place that teaches kids about getting along. Forty-eight children attended the camp. Half of them were Protestant and half were Catholic.

The children were all between the ages of 11 and 13. They built and raced rafts, ran obstacle courses, and climbed a wall. Eileen played with her new friends on teams that included an equal number of Catholics and Protestants.

“The camp is helping us to understand each other,” she said in a TV interview. “You have to get along with each other. If you don't, your team is no good.”

Removing Barriers

Four famous athletes, led by American track-and-field star Edwin Moses, served as honorary team captains. They encouraged campers to work together as a team. Moses, who won two Olympic gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles, is chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, which helps fund the camp. One of the academy's goals is to promote sports participation for the world's youth who live in troubled areas.

“It seems to me that this place brings together people who would never have played with each other before,” Moses said. “It is helping to remove barriers against a backdrop of deep-rooted prejudice and mistrust.”

A Violent Past

Bernie O'Callaghan coordinates Youth Sport Foyle (YSF), the event's Irish organizers. Although his duties are challenging, they don't compare to the duties of his old job. For a quarter of a century, he was a bomb disposal expert for the Irish army.

“I've seen [violence] up close; I've seen what hatred can do,” O'Callaghan said.

O'Callaghan said it is important for Irish people not to dwell on their violent past, but to move forward in peace. “One sports camp can't change that,” O'Callaghan said, “but we have to keep chipping away at it, [to say] that all people are the same.”

Sending a Message

The YSF sponsors many other programs in Ireland. It introduces Protestant children to traditionally Catholic sports, such as Gaelic football and hurling. Catholic children get to play rugby, cricket, and other sports that are often associated with Protestant communities. YSF activities have influenced more than 14,000 Irish youths since 1997.

Britain's Ian Botham, a legend in the sport of cricket, is proud he can help other athletes send a positive message to the children. “Sports will break down more barriers than politics or politicians ever will,” he said.

Eileen Gill is hopeful that she and other kids can do something to end the violence that tears her country apart. “It seems we're the only ones who can change it now,” she said.