These teenagers from Belfast's most notorious interface are confounding expectations
A THIRD of an Ulster University degree course is now made up of students from Northern Ireland's most notorious interface - with most becoming the first in their families to attend university.
Cross-community initiative R-City, which has brought together hundreds of young people from the loyalist Shankill and republican Ardoyne areas over the past five years, has had its leadership programme accredited by NUI Galway and recognised by university admissions service Ucas.
Initially aimed at fostering understanding between youths in the two communities abutting the flashpoint Ardoyne roundabout in north Belfast, it evolved into a more practical project focussing on education, employment and mental health.
"We're youth-led. They told us they wanted more focus on relevant issues so that's what we're doing - learning, leadership and entrepreneurial kills," Shankill youth worker Alan Waite said.
"Young people come onto the Leadership for Life course... that gives them a diploma level qualification and helps them get into university.
"At the moment the full time Youth and Community degree course has one third of the class from R-City. It's amazing. 500 people apply and 200 get interviewed.
"One of our girls got accepted and she was really, really proud. She kept saying `I can't believe I just got into university' and changed her Facebook status to `Not bad for a girl from the Shankill estate'. She was the first in her family to go to university."
Mr Waite founded the project with Ardoyne youth worker Tommy Turley in 2013, the pair developing a working relationship that has evolved into a close friendship and seen them holiday together with their families.
"You have to lead by example," Mr Waite said.
"And there are now so many relationships (some romantic) that have come out of the groups."
The scale of the achievement has been against a backdrop of the bitter `Camp Twaddell' stand-off over July 12 parades, the most acute educational underachievement in Northern Ireland and drug abuse and suicide rates approaching epidemic proportions among young men.
"Youth work is ultimately about education, educating, creating options, building qualities and attributes in young people, building their self esteem, allowing them the option to talk and share who they really are.
"This is about being proud of your culture. If you're from Ardoyne and see yourself as Irish and want to wear your GAA top be proud of it, but be respectful of someone who's not the same as you.
"If you're loyalist and you're a member of a marching band and want to wear your Rangers top be proud of that, but be respectful."
Last Saturday, the latest cohort made their way to South Africa for an annual leadership-building programme.
The 25 young people embarking on `Belfast to Blanco' are spending time in a township, a juvenile detention centre, a crèche and even teach 800 primary school children to say "What about ye?"
"One of the big turning points for one boy in particular was the visit to South Africa," Mr Waite said.
"It showed him there was a bigger world than just here. Most young people these days get to go on holiday, but going somewhere with an Irish bar and food or a British bar and food is not a real cultural event.
"To go somewhere like South Africa - there's something in the air. You can't help but come back and feel different about this area.
"People hear about the project and think it's Belfast kids going out to help poor wee Africans. It's not like that. They're helping children from Belfast, teaching them what a community really is."
BLOGS FROM BLANCO
:: Kaitlyn Shoukri
"From day one in Blanco I have been impacted upon in many ways, from the debrief sessions and church services to the townships.
"It has really put my life into perspective. I have put myself right out there, I have given it my all and I know for a fact that my confidence grew and grew even though I thought that was impossible.
"I have given my whole experience here, my everything, and I would give anything to have this experience all over again with such an amazing not only a team, but a family.
"The most important thing I am going to be bring home from my experience is to spend so much more time with my family...
"I will also be more appreciative and thankful for everything I get."
"Relating my impact to back home, I don't appreciate the things that I have.
"As much as the people of Blanco appreciate the things that they have, this journey has also impacted me in a way that as soon as I get back I want to get stuck into my youth club in terms making the young people from my community as happy and comfortable as I did with the young people from the townships.
"I am going to bring this positive mind-set back from this experience. It has given me the best feeling that I have ever had, I am going to make sure I keep the connection going with my group, because these people guide me in the correct direction and are so positive to be around."
"`A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'.
"I took my single step four years ago when I began R-City. As an ambitious young person, this started my journey of a thousand miles leading me to South Africa and helping me prepare to fulfil my full potential and persue my career in youth work.
"...before coming to South Africa I was finding it hard to decide if I really wanted to go to university and if youth work really the career for me
"Due to working two jobs and also studying for my A-Levels I think I lost sight of what I really want in life.
"Being (here) has allowed me to regain my energy and motivation for youth work and helping others. All I needed was a tiny push and luckily Blanco did that for me."