ARLINGTON — It was friendship, not romantic love, that compelled Aaron Kelly to make the 4,500-mile trip from Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Arlington for a weekend prom date.
That’s what Kelly said Saturday with a soft accent as he stood with his date, Audrey Steele, before a phalanx of flashing cameras the night of the Martin High School Senior Prom.
"I probably wouldn’t have done it for anyone else besides Audrey," said Kelly, 18. "She’s such a good friend."
Steele, also 18, and Kelly met in 2005 as part of a social experiment called the Ulster Project, which was designed to foster cross-cultural friendships between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Project organizers take Irish teens influential in their schools and community and send to stay with families in Arlington for a month, hoping the experience will make them more tolerant and less willing to carry their parents’ prejudices into the future, said Tom Bonjour, Arlington Ulster Project past president.
"These things change not because you make laws," Bonjour said. "These things change because you make friends and because you change attitudes."
Ulster Project supporters insist that their efforts have made a difference, and that relationships such as the one between Kelly and Steele are examples of their work.
The couple took pictures for parents at Lake Arlington Baptist Church, 2912 Little Road, before going to the prom. Kelly returns to Belfast today to study for exams that could determine which college he can attend, Steele said.
It is a better, but not a perfect, Belfast to which he returns, Kelly said.
"There’s a little bit of tension, but it’s not a battlefield," he said.
"It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to a prom in America," Kelly said. "Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to return to see my friends in America."