It has taken just six short months for the lives of 50 young people to be transformed through a Government-backed pilot scheme aimed at breaking down religious barriers. For many of the unemployed 18-24-year-olds who took part in the Springboard programme sponsored by the Office of the First and deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM), years of prejudice were broken down as they had the chance for the first time to make friends with people from "the other side".
All of the young people came from disadvantaged backgrounds and started the programme in February with little idea of what their future might hold. That has all changed, too, as they were taught how to recognise their individual strengths, empowering each of them to become active contributors in building a shared and united community.
Headstart is a pilot scheme for the United Youth Programme which is part of the Together: Building a United Community Strategy, which reflects the Northern Ireland Executive's commitment to improving community relations.
The scheme targeted young people who were not in employment, education or training, and a spokesperson for the OFMDFM says: "The aim was to bring together youth from different communities to develop trust, build real relationships and an understanding of people from different backgrounds in a safe learning environment.
"Headstart offered structured employment, work experience, volunteer and leisure opportunities, along with a dedicated programme designed to foster good relations and a shared community."
Angila Chada, executive director of Springboard who developed the programme, adds: "Headstart has proved really positive in getting right to the heart of grass roots community and bringing them all together. Many of the young people were facing a range of issues and came out the other side, really gaining substantially skill-wise and in confidence.
"There was also an attitudinal change which will allow them to deal with setbacks that come their way in the future and also enable them to take control of their own lives."
We caught up with three of the young participants to find out just how big an impact the programme has had on their lives.
'I would never have mixed with the other side, but now I can see we're all the same'
Karl Gorman (23) grew up on an interface on the Cliftonville Road in north Belfast where he didn't get the chance to mix with people from other communities. He has now made friends with Protestants for the first time in his life. He says:
In our area we were marginalised and wouldn't have gone outside of our own community. Springboard has opened doors for me and given me the chance to mix with people from other communities.
I have lived in the Cliftonville area most of my life and when I started the programme, I felt as if I had reached a dead end and had nothing to look forward to. I left school as soon as I could and I have worked but never really had any career goals.
I used to be sectarian and never mixed with Protestants but, through the programme, I have got to see that everyone is the same and there is no real difference. It was my first chance to work alongside Protestants and it made me realise they don't have horns and tails.
I also got to mix with different cultures and completely changed my views on diversity.
Before, I just thought they were coming over here to take our jobs and now I understand some of the problems they have faced in their lives.
It helps you to look at things differently. I now feel I understand where other people are coming from.
I have Protestant friends and have enjoyed nights out with them and that's something I would never have thought would happen before.
I have always enjoyed outdoor activities and the course has made me realise that there are opportunities to train and maybe make a career out of it. It is something that I would really love to get into.
I'm now confident about getting a job and from being unemployed and having no idea of what I was going to do with my life I feel I now have hope and some goals."
'I had swastikas on my bedroom wall, but I'm changed now'
Before he started the programme in February, Kurtis Morrow (21), from Tiger's Bay, described himself as being sectarian, racist and a drug addict. He has now completely turned his life around and is not only clean for the first time in 10 years but hopes to work in his own community helping to turn young people away from drugs and hatred. He says:
I was in a very dark place when I started the programme. I would say I was probably the most racist and sectarian person out there. I had both volumes of Adolf Hitler's autobiography which gives an idea of the type of person I was.
I had swastikas on my bedroom wall and a huge Union Jack with sectarian slogans written all over it which I have now torn down and ripped up.
I wouldn't have spoken to anyone who wasn't the same religion as me and I would have verbally abused anyone who was different from me in the street. That's how much I hated them and I now feel it's terrible that I could have been like that and hurt people for nothing. I still can't believe it myself.
The programme has changed my life big time and made me realise how important diversity really is. I now know people are not different at all and it has made me see people for themselves.
I celebrated my 21st birthday during the course and a guy on it from Somalia bought me a present, which he had wrapped up.
He also brought me to a drop-in centre for immigrants who are getting it tough. It's a place where they can relax and have a meal and I got to meet some people there who shared their stories with me.
I've been attacking these people all my life and here they were sharing their life experiences with me and it made me realise while I've had life hard, it hasn't been as hard as these people. I still feel guilty about it.
I also got to make friends with Catholics and understand why there is a conflict and that it is exactly the same on both sides and that Catholics are not so different after all.
Most people I know would have had the same feelings as me. I now have very good friends who are Catholics and have been to parties with them and to their homes and they have been to my home. I've actually lost some of my old friends because of it, as they still think the same way I used to.
I was a drug addict but Springboard has helped me get clean and I haven't taken drugs in three months. I started taking drugs when I was 11. It's so rife in our local community. I tried but I couldn't get away from it.
I started smoking cannabis and then when I was about 16 and methadone was being sold, I became addicted to that.
My parents threw me out when I was 18 because of my drug addiction and I was homeless for a while and sleeping on the streets.
It made me try and kick it myself and I got help from my doctor but I felt the medication was making me even worse and after about a year I started taking cocaine.
The staff at Springboard were absolutely brilliant in supporting me and helping me to get off drugs.
They were there for me night and day and still are, if I need them.
I've haven't taken drugs for three months and have never felt cleaner in my life.
I think people don't realise there is support out there and that they need to go and look for it. You have to try and help yourself.
I now want to work in the community and help other young people. I have been accepted for a programme to volunteer overseas and hope to go to Africa or India and work in the local communities there.
I then plan to take what I learn and what I have been through and use it to help young people who are suffering because of the conflict here and with social problems.
Even if I help just one person it will be worth it.
When I was younger there was nothing in my area to do and no support to help you stay away from these things and I have decided I am going to do it myself and set up a community support group to offer that support.
If you get support you are flying and it is unbelievable the difference the support of Springboard has made to my life.
If only all young people could have it. Everybody needs it and everybody deserves that chance. Bringing people together on residentials and overseas really gave us the chance to get to know each other and I think that made so much difference."
'I could now walk onto the Shankill Road without fear'
When she started Headstart, Rachael Donaghy (24) from Poleglass had been struggling with depression for four years after dropping out of university. Today she is bursting with confidence for her future, which she puts down entirely to the scheme. She says:
I was stuck in a wee hole and had got myself into a terrible rut. I went to St Louise's Grammar School and did my GCSEs and A-levels and then started a course in media, film and photography at the University of Ulster.
I loved media studies and did it for GCSE and A-level. I have dyslexia and when I started my university course I was shocked to find it was more theory than practical and I really struggled with it.
It seemed like overnight I changed. I left school bubbly and happy and full of confidence and suddenly I had dropped out of university and didn't want to go out of the house.
I was prescribed anti-depressants and just sat at home, day in and day out, doing nothing. I had no confidence and had given up on life. I really thought there was no point in even trying.
I was depressed for about four years and it got to the stage where I didn't even want to go out to the shop. My family was really worried about me and it was hard for them to see me that way.
I just didn't have the will to do anything.
I left school on top of the world and within a year of starting university and realising that I had picked the wrong course, I was a completely different person.
I was still struggling with depression when I started Springboard in February, but within just two weeks my whole opinion on life had turned around.
I don't know how but suddenly I just knew I had to take control of my own life. I now plan to do another A-level to increase my UCAS points and then return to university to get a degree, although I am not sure yet what course I want to do.
A few months ago I didn't want to do anything, now I know exactly what I want to do and what I need to do it. I've never before in my life been so confident.
I think it was down to the people taking the course. They helped show you that you are not to blame for your problems and help you to see past them and they also help you to be the real you.
Another of the main aspects of the course for me was meeting young Protestants and making friends with Protestants for the first time.
I had this fear before of people from the other side which has completely gone and I think I could now happily walk onto the Shankill Road and not be afraid. I never had friends who were Protestants and now I have some really good friends thanks to Springboard.
I think the course was absolutely amazing. I think if more young people were to do it then we really could break down the walls and Belfast would be a much happier place. I feel now the world is my oyster and I am so happy to be back on track."
Building success together
The Together: Building a United Community Strategy was published in May of last year to reflect the Executive's commitment to improving community relations
The strategy outlines how Government, community and individuals will work together to build a united community and achieve change with a number of key priorities which include:
- Our children and young people;
- Our shared community;
- Our safe community; and
- Our cultural expression.
The United Youth Programme for children and young people aims to create 10,000 one-year placements
The programme is designed to give young people who are not in education, employment or training the opportunity to take part in work experience, volunteering and leisure opportunities,while focusing on good relations and building relationships between divided communities
Headstart, which was developed by Springboard, finishes at the end of August and was the pilot for the programme
Executive director Angila Chada says it has proved to be a resounding success