For three weeks this summer, North Shore residents will open their hearts and homes to Israeli, Palestinian and American teens who are coming together in the Chicago area for a peace-building program. Hands of Peace is designed to help break down the walls of conflict in the Middle East and throughout the world, encouraging high school students of widely varied backgrounds to find their voices as leaders, overcome stereotypes and learn the leadership and critical thinking skills that are necessary for working toward peace.
This summer’s 49 participants come from areas that are divided by conflict, culture, geography and history, yet they commit to forging a connection and finding common ground. As these students come into unfamiliar ground, North Shore residents provide comfort by opening the doors of their homes.
Some hosts, such as Marily Schonthal of Glencoe, have been involved in some manner for many years. Schonthal began volunteering four years ago in recruiting and is now in her second year as a host.
“They are a very unique, self-selecting group of young people,” said Schonthal, referring to the 15-year-old Palestinian girl staying in Schonthal’s home and her fellow participants.
Schonthal explained that the participants take part in private group discussion each morning, followed by fun and challenging activities such as high ropes courses, visits to Chicago attractions, and film, speech and culture workshops. It is the host families’ job to provide support and comfort during this process.
David Bliss of Wilmette also sees the significance of the program. “It’s taking a small part in a large, very complex issue, but everything adds up,” he said. “The program brings these kids over and matches them up in the hopes of breaking down barriers. Someday these kids could be in a position of authority, leading to better outcomes.”
Bliss found personal inspiration in the program. After hosting both an Israeli and a Palestinian boy last summer, Bliss partnered with a local library to donate several hundred books to a new library in Israel.
Lori Kenward of Deerfield is also involved in the program outside of hosting alone. While her family is in their third year of hosting, her daughters, Sarah (18) and Emily (19), have both volunteered as XLs, students who work as a team to provide peer support, inspiration, and kinship to new participants, while organizing daily activities and facilitating discussion groups.
“For my kids, this has been a life changing experience, and for us as well,” Kenward explained. “The power of dialogue is an amazing thing… [Hands of Peace] demonstrates the power of people talking to each other. Our children hadn’t heard everything about the conflict, but people’s personal stories are so powerful.”
Gretchen Grad, Hands of Peace founder, says she sees great transformations take place in the young participants as they develop deep connections with each other. “This gives us hope for a better future,” she said. “Young people are the key to change and peace in the Middle East.”
Schonthal sums the program up as a matter of understanding. “If we open our hearts and minds to one humanity, we learn to listen,” she said. “The participants learn to listen in a way they never have. By the end, they can hear.”
For more information, visit handsofpeace.org.