Irish Impact: Belfast interns make their mark in Avon Park

Since January, Belfast, Northern Ireland residents Ashleigh Mulgrave and Tanya Graham have been able to discover the joys of eating gator tail at Avon Park’s Wild Turkey Tavern, exploring the Disney World theme park and walking on some of the beaches of the Sunshine State.

But even more fulfilling for these first-ever interns of the 51-year-old Avon Park Housing Authority has been the opportunity to help many local, low-income individuals and families. The two 22-year-olds said Thursday that assisting residents with reaching their goals, such as getting jobs and affordable housing, gives them the most satisfaction.

The women are the first students from Ireland to serve internships at a public housing authority in the United States, said Bea Gillians, the APHA’s director of housing.

“They’re trendsetters,” she said Thursday.

The APHA oversees a total of 282 low-income rental apartments and houses in five communities. Mulgrave and Graham began assisting the agency in January after APHA officials learned from Florida’s State Housing Association of the women’s dream of serving internships abroad.

They’ll finish their internships at the end of this month and then return home for their final year of studies at the University of Ulster in Belfast. Each of them is on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in housing management next summer.

And the pair said they would like to start their careers as public housing professionals in Florida after they graduate. Mulgrave said she wants to focus on case management, while Graham said she wants to work her way up to the executive level.

Gillians said the interns often show her the skills they’ve learned thus far from their well-rounded college education.

For example, “Where I would have to ask someone to read plans, (Mulgrave and Graham) can already read them,” she said, adding that APHA officials are not aware of any other university that offers the extensive public housing management skill set provided by the University of Ulster.

During their time in Avon Park, the interns have processed housing applications, created marketing strategies for the newest APHA community, Cornell Colony, and performed budgeting and community event tasks.

“They’ll be an asset to any organization,” Gillians said.

During their internship, Mulgrave and Graham live together in the APHA community of North Central Heights.

This setting “makes us more empathetic with the people,” Graham said.

Mulgrave and Graham first became friends at the University of Ulster. But “back in the day, we wouldn’t be friends,” Mulgrave said.

That’s because she is Protestant and Graham is Catholic — differences that have historically caused much violence in their homeland. The two women said paramilitary groups still operate in Ireland and older citizens still hold territorial grudges based on religious and political differences, but that many younger Irish are working toward a more peaceful coexistence.

Mulgrave and Graham, who previously interned at a housing authority in Belfast, said there are many dissimilarities between public housing operations in Florida and Northern Ireland. For example, checking on the criminal backgrounds of housing applicants in Belfast is difficult because of the lack of public records on crime incidents, they said.

They also said escrow accounts, which help people save money to eventually buy their own homes, are not available in Ireland. In addition, in comparison with the U.S., the majority of the public housing units in Northern Ireland are much older and they house a much less diverse population, the women said.

During their internships with the APHA, Mulgrave and Graham have visited the Sarasota Housing Authority and will soon visit the Seminole County Housing Authority. They’re making connections, and if jobs open up at the APHA, Gillians said she would love to have them join the agency on a regular basis.

In small-town Avon Park, after all, an Irish gal is able to feast on gator tail.

“We’ll have to come back here just for that!” Graham said.

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