As many DePauw students leave campus for the summer, a group including DePauw student-athletes is embarking on a 15-day May Term trip to Northern Ireland to assist PeacePlayers International (PPI) in its efforts to help bridge the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities.
The DePauw Tiger Belfast Team, or TBT 3, returns for a third year to work closely with the PPI-NI staff in its in-school and after-school programming, clinics and the culminating event of the year for PPI, Summer Jam.
Numerous DePauw students and more than 30 student-athletes have participated in the three years. This year's group of 18 students, headed by men's basketball head coach Bill Fenlon and his wife Gigi, who is a Part-time Assistant Professor of Communication and Theatre at DePauw, includes five men's basketball players, five women's basketball players and a swimmer.
Leaders at DePauw's Hubbard Center for Student Engagement knew the project would initially be of interest to student-athletes but saw the connection to restorative justice appealing to a wider campus community, including students pursuing conflict studies majors.
"Basketball can build community and camaraderie and help us recognize that even though we may come from different nations and backgrounds, fundamentally we are all human beings and we all enjoy competitive sports," said Mandy Brookins Blinn, director of off-campus study. "It's a unifying force."
The basketball component led the Hubbard Center to reach out to Fenlon, who is in his 24th year of coaching men's basketball at DePauw. Fenlon saw the benefits the program, especially for his players.
"Initially, I thought our guys don't get to do any of that," Fenlon said. "They don't get to do any Winter Term stuff - none of the romantic type of things other students get to do, and I'm sure that bugs them from time to time."
In an effort to obtain more information, Fenlon initially traveled to Northern Ireland to scope out the lay of the land, liked what he saw and now leads a third year of a growing program.
"They [the Hubbard Center] told me about it, I did the homework on it and determined it would be a good fit," Fenlon said. "I hadn't heard of PPI before it came along, but it's kind of a big deal."
DePauw students have the chance to coach, mentor and lead alongside PPI which uses basketball to "unite, educate and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world." They serve in 15 countries, have 238 partner schools and nonprofits and claim to have impacted over 75,000 youths.
With an initial goal of $6,000, this year's TBT group raised over $9,000 for the trip. Among other things, the money is used to sponsor the 'Summer Jam' which allows them to rent a facility, and give away items such as DePauw shirts and basketballs, which Fenlon says is a big boost to the program.
The group, which arrived in Dublin today, will travel to Belfast for a black taxi tour where a tour guide takes them around the city to give a perspective on the history, the conflict and "The Troubles" of Northern Ireland.
"On Thursday we do a selfie hunt," Fenlon said. "It's a scavenger hunt where we send them all over the city. It's a way for them to get around, to see what's what and to get their bearings."
One of the first things to spot are the peace walls all around the communities. They could be metal or brick and can run for a couple blocks or a couple miles.
"They are only there to separate neighborhoods," Fenlon said. "One of first things we do when we get in there is we stop at it and people sign it."
The conflict between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom is a centuries-old battle for religious and political independence that included a violent 30-year span dubbed "The Troubles" in which more than 3,500 people died.
While a more peaceful era has emerged since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, less than seven percent of Northern Ireland's pupils attend integrated schools. PPI's goal is to get the new generation, the kids, playing together through sport and have them recognize they can live side-by-side with one another.
Sports are a way of doing just that.
"Basketball is a new sport," Fenlon said. "There's no history there and it's safe for everyone to play. It's a camouflage for conflict resolution."
With more than 90 percent of the schools segregated, kids between the ages of 9-17 have to sign off for the program. Not many parents are involved.
"It's kind of like camp," Fenlon said. "One of stations is a conflict resolution station. What do the flags mean, the terminology means, you know get them talking about what they think they know about the other side. It's really about educating them about the lack of differences."
The Tiger Belfast Team also gets to play the role of tourist the last few days, traveling to Dublin to visit the Google Headquarters, among other things.
The response from the students has been positive as well.
"We haven't had any trouble loading up the next team," Fenlon said. "We've always had people wanting to go. We've turned down people wanting to go on this trip.
"I think they learn a lot without cracking open a book, which is a good way to learn. They come back feeling they learned something they didn't know before about the world. I also feel like they come away knowing they did a little bit of good, which is a really good feeling. They have an opportunity to be impactful and they embrace that.
"The groups have done an unbelievable job," Fenlon continued. "Learn, do some good and have some fun. Those are really my three goals for the program, and I feel like we've been really successful every time we go over there."