When Jurni found out she was going to Ireland, it was impossible to contain her excitement.

“I was jumping through the roof and screaming because I was going to a new place,” she said. “I’ve never been on a plane for longer than three hours. I was so excited to go to a whole new country!”

Since 2010, a group of Mercy Home youth and coworkers have taken five separate trips to Ireland, where they have stayed with host families, hiked through the Irish countryside, engaged in local culture and history, and much more.

This trip is made possible thanks to a partnership between Cook County, Illinois, and County Cork, Ireland, and is a great experience for all the kids who have participated.

This year’s trip was extra special because, for the first time, Mercy Home reserved two spots for mentees from our Friends First Mentoring Program.

Mercy Home youth, Jurni, in Ireland
Jurni makes friends with some kangaroos at a wildlife park in Ireland.

Jurni, a 15-year-old sophomore at Dyett High School for the Arts, was one of this year’s lucky candidates. Now in her third year with Friends First, Jurni first heard about the program through her school.

“I don’t really like staying inside. I like to try new things and meet new people, so Friends First has been a great experience,” she said.

Paired with the same mentor, Bridget, for over two years, the duo always finds something fun to do around Chicago.

“We like to go to PetSmart and play with the puppies,” Jurni said. “I tried flaming cheese—saganaki—with Bridget in Greektown. We like to try new foods around town.”

Prior to the Ireland trip, the farthest Jurni had travelled was to Idaho Falls, Idaho, so she was excited to embark on her first international trip overseas. In the weeks leading up to her departure, Jurni said she scoured the internet researching Ireland’s history and landmarks. But in the end, she was most eager to go swimming and try new cuisine.

The group landed in Dublin before heading south to County Cork. After a series of long, winding drives and a ferry ride, the group settled on Bere Island, the most western point of Europe. The group stayed in the barracks of the local Civil Defense squad, Ireland’s volunteer-based organization that supports front line emergency services.

Jurni said staying in the barracks was cool, but the coastal landscape was what truly captivated her.

“There was so much water, which was a pretty blue color. I got to see the waves,” she said. “I loved seeing the honeysuckle and berry bushes on walks, and lots of sheep and cows. And the mountains were awesome.”

On Bere Island the group learned about Gaelic football and hurling, before taking lessons in each sport. Later, the group visited a Buddhist meditation center on the mainland before going to Baltimore and Cape Clear Island where they snorkeled, swam, and explored a cave.

“One of the highlights for me was going to Allihies Copper Mine Museum to learn about the background of Ireland’s copper mines,” said Jurni. “Sightseeing was my favorite part. The road trips were so cool because the roads are so tiny.”

The roads may be small, but according to Jurni, the people she met along the way are as big-hearted as they come.

“In Ireland, people just seemed to be nicer. Everyone spoke to me, and to one another,” she said. “It was a totally different experience from what you see in Chicago. It really surprised me. On such a small island like Bere Island, everybody knows a lot of people and becomes friends with each other. It felt like they know practically everybody.”

Group of Mercy Home youth hiking in Ireland
Jurni (in red jacket and hat) and her peers enjoy a scenic hike on their trip to Ireland.

That friendliness and hospitality rubbed off on Jurni. Now she feels more open about talking to people.

“I learned that there are a lot of new things to experience in this world if you choose to actually do it. Everybody has a different background and history,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave. Ireland is 100 percent the coolest place I’ve ever been.”

Jurni says she’s been bitten by the travel bug and is already thinking about her next voyage.

“I want to take another trip back to Ireland with my family and show them what I saw,” she said. “I’d also like to visit other places. I’d love to go to Brazil.”

Heading in to her sophomore year of high school, with memories of Ireland like a gust of wind at her back, Jurni was full of gratitude for Friends First for stamping her ticket to see the world.

“I love Friends First because it really broadens your horizons,” she said. “You actually get to meet new people and try new things. And most important, Friends First introduces you to things that you’d never think you’d do.”

Mercy Home and Friends First takes pride in opening our kids’ eyes to a whole new world, whether it’s in Chicago or abroad. But we need your support to help kids like Jurni experience the thrill of travel. Consider making a donation, or suggesting future travel destinations for our kids in the comments below.

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