Living the Mission

Stephen Martineau '97 helps turn potential enemies into friends forever

By Sarah Schewe

Stephen Martineau '97 began a romance with service work during his final year at Holy Cross. "I was interested in this girl, and she was going to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, so I decided maybe I would like to volunteer, too," he says with a laugh. Though the romance with the girl didn't flourish that spring break in South Carolina, Martineau's passion for service did. As Martineau says, "I caught the bug of working in the service of others."

A history major at Holy Cross, Martineau resumed his involvement with Habitat following graduation as an AmeriCorps volunteer. He then worked for several non-profits in the Northeast before landing at Friends Forever (http://friendsforeverusa.org), a Portsmouth, N.H.-based non-profit that uses a grassroots approach to promote understanding among cultures in conflict, focusing on teenagers as ambassadors of peace.

 

As the young people in the Friends Forever program spend more time together, barriers break down and personalities begin to mesh. Here, a group from Belfast hams it up on a hiking trip (above).

Friends Forever began by bringing Protestant and Catholic youth from Northern Ireland to New England to spend part of a summer together. "My first day on the job I met 48 young people and teachers at Logan Airport," Martineau recalls. "Now we're a staff of four, but back then it was just one-me."
Martineau had never been to New Hampshire when he took the job directing Friends Forever. The group started in 1986 when officials from a YMCA in Northern Ireland contacted staff at the YMCA in Portsmouth to find out if they would host a group of their students during a particularly violent summer that was part of the time the Irish call "The Troubles." The students' families and friends were shocked when they came home inseparable. Since then, 1,000 young people have completed the program, which works to promote trust and understanding among cultures in conflict.
Under Martineau's leadership, the organization has expanded to run programs for Jewish and Arab Muslim youth from the Middle East and, also, for local youth. "People realized we have plenty of conflict right here in the U.S.," he explains. With more than 70 languages spoken at Manchester High School in New Hampshire, Martineau has started a Domestic Immigrant Integration initiative with students from the city who are first- and second-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, Albania, Sudan, Congo and Puerto Rico.

Operating on a $200,000 budget, Martineau runs yearlong programs  that begin with an intense two-week session in the United States. The 14-, 15- and 16-year-old participants are together constantly. Martineau is fond of saying, "You don't really get to know someone until you've been on a life raft with them." The program is a friendship/leadership boot camp, filled with high ropes courses, speaking engagements at Rotary Clubs and chambers of commerce, hiking in the mountains and volunteering with high school students who have special needs. The students also worship together, attending both Protestant and Catholic services, or temples and mosques. "They don't have time to dwell on failures, and, if there are any issues, they have to work them out," says Martineau. "In the process, they realize how alike they are."

Friends Forever relies on financial and in-kind private donations. "The reason this works is people volunteer to take the kids on a hike or to a Sox game," explains Martineau, who credits the program's success to the people who take direct action on international issues that often seem insurmountable. "At the end of a long day, people sit down to watch the news, and they just want to throw up their hands. But now they can do something."

Friends Forever has recently increased its presence overseas with a Belfast office. At the dinner celebrating the new venture, Kieran Dowling, the Joint Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland, said, "The path to reconciliation on our island is difficult and long. Sustainable peace can only be achieved by ensuring that the work of reconciliation reaches every corner of society and that all take part. I am confident that Friends Forever can make a meaningful contribution to this process."

The program is growing in Israel, too: After working there for five years, Friends Forever will be sending college students to work as English as a second language volunteers in Ein Mahel, an Arab village near Nazareth. "On a trip last winter, we visited a new school where one of our partners is now principal," Martineau says. "We could not help but be struck by the hospitality of all the residents of the community and the teachers and the emphasis and effort they put towards having their children, no matter how young, try to engage us with English. They truly believe that American education is the highest form, and the goal of many parents is for their children to attend universities here."

With that in mind, the team designed an Arab-Western Tutor program, where Friends Forever will recruit, train and provide English-speaking tutors of college age or older to travel for two week programs to be hosted in Israel. "They will also tutor second- and third-grade classes in English," he says. "In return, they have full accommodations and get two trips around Israel of their choice."
Martineau says that his Holy Cross education is put to good use in his work for Friends Forever. "I travel to both Israel and Ireland each year to establish relationships and cultivate interest and support," he explains. "One of the things Holy Cross prepares you to do effectively is communicate with all sorts of personalities and backgrounds and to try and understand where people are coming from.

"If you are genuinely interested in people they sense that," he adds, "and you can build trust and compassion out of that and then things really start to happen from a business point of view."
On his last trip to Israel, Martineau proposed to his girlfriend, Amanda Gebo, a speech pathologist. "The engagement was not planned, and a ring was purchased the next day in the port city of Acre during a break from meetings!" Martineau recalls. "I did have time to call her father, though, and ask permission." The couple were married in April.

So, years after a romantic notion started his affair with service, it seems Martineau eventually "got the girl."

THE FUTURE OF FRIENDS

Stephen Martineau '97 (right) and the team at Friends Forever are in the planning stages of a new facility in New Hampshire. "The Friends Forever Peace and Understanding Center" will serve as the global headquarters for the group's programs.
"A large part of the inspiration for the center, for me, was the Holy Cross campus," Martineau says. "Seeing how a beautiful place could create a harmony of mind, body and spirit has remained with me since graduation.

"Because of Holy Cross I know the importance of a place for graduates and members to call home," he adds, noting that the group needs a place to grow and provide opportunities "for others who share our committment to peace in Northen Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere."

Programs continue as the work on the center progresses: The next group of 36 youth from Belfast arrive in New England later this month. And programs are in the works for other high-conflict areas, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uganda.

Sarah Schewe is a writer and blogger based in Hanover, N.H. She writes about community health and development.