By Eileen Weber
For ten days in July, a peace camp in Vermont will bring a dozen American, Israeli, and Palestinian teens together to laugh, play, and learn about each other. The 16-year-olds will be a mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. And all of the effort to get this project off the ground came from one man: The Reverend Nicholas T. Porter.
As a small child watching his family’s black and white TV, Porter watched the images of the Arab invasion on Israeli soil in October, 1973. It left a lasting impression that led to a lifetime dream that peace in the Middle East might one day become a reality.
As the rector of Southport’s Trinity Episcopal Church, Porter and his wife Dorothy had long discussed an opportunity to host a peace camp. Having spent time in Jerusalem during his career, they felt a strong desire to stop the violence and hatred that occurs between the two groups that actually have more in common than they wish to admit. One way to do that is to teach the young about tolerance so that they grow to spread peace.
Porter and his family have a 187-acre farm—complete with a naturally spring-fed swimming pond and hiking trails—in Brattleboro, VT. It is there that they will host a Kids4Peace camp. Founded 10 years ago in Jerusalem, Kids4Peace operates through affiliated chapters in different locations, with one here in the U.S. The program starts working with kids as young as 10 years old focusing on building friendships through faith.
But these teens will not only focus on their shared religious experiences. They will have daily activities that include soccer, horseback riding, hiking, and swimming. They will spend nearly ten days together hopefully creating a life-long bond. “It’s a wonderful benefit to having this farm—a real asset,” said Mrs. Porter.
The really cool part is that they will also take time to respect the environment. They will go on field trips to an organic farm, a local cheese factory, and a wind and power plant.
“There’s a co-op in Brattleboro where everything comes from a 20-mile radius,” said Mrs. Porter. But, she said they have to be specific about the foods they prepare in deference to the children’s religions. “The meat has to be hallal and kosher in its butchering and handling.”
To her, this is an important goal toward a better understanding between politically opposing groups. “You want the kids to have tolerance for each other and each other’s cultures,” said Mrs. Porter. “The goal is to make these kids leaders in peacemaking.”
In Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, these kids have so many distractions. For the Israeli youths, a two-year conscription in the armed forces is mandatory. Giving them a chance to communicate with one another on a peer level is essential for mutual understanding.
“This is where the rubber hits the road,” said Porter. “We wanted to get the kids at 17, but they can’t travel a year before their military conscription. This represents a key hinge in peace education. They will ask, ‘When I see you at a checkpoint, will it make a difference?’”
Founded 10 years ago in Jerusalem, Kids4Peace operates through affiliated chapters in different locations, with one here in the U.S. The program starts working with kids as young as 10 years old focusing on building friendships through faith.
Josh Thomas, named Executive Director of Kids4Peace last year, oversees branches in Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina, and Vermont. An Episcopal priest, Thomas started out as a facilitator with the organization in 2006. Since it began in 2001, over 450 kids from Jerusalem and the U.S. combined have participated in the summer camps. This year alone, over 150 kids applied for the 48 spots available. To Thomas, that’s a sure sign that things are going in the right direction.
“For many of the kids from Jerusalem, this program is their first time so far away from home, and it is an amazing act of trust on the part of their parents to encourage them to take this long journey with children from other faiths,” he said. “[T]he Kids4Peace camps in America allow the children to interact more naturally and develop habits of trust, respect and cooperation.”
Porter explained that the kids cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. He attributed that to their desire to have a better future than their parents did. “Young people are realizing that they can be responsible for their own environment,” he said. “We don’t want to reestablish the status quo. We want something better and think the young people want that too.”
“It’s mind-blowing what they get accomplished in 10 days,” said Mrs. Porter. “But you feel more hopeful about humanity when you see this good go on.”
The initiative here in the U.S. is growing. Thomas said there has been interest in forming new groups in Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
For more information about Kids4Peace, visit their web site at www.kids4peaceusa.org. For more information on the program in Vermont this summer, contact The Reverend Porter at Trinity Church by calling 203-255-0454.