Twelve area children who recently returned from performing at the Dundalk International Maytime Festival in Ireland -- their first trip outside the United States -- say their goal of traveling to Africa next year is merely a leap away.

The Playmakers ensemble was invited to Ireland this summer as guest artists for the 23rd annual theater festival. The players performed at local restaurants and schools, and in Dundalk's town square for its children's day activities. In addition, the Playmakers made history as the first group ever to provide entertainment during the closing day awards ceremony in Town Hall, according to organizers.

"The experience was tremendous for the kids. We wanted to see how they would act and respond in a totally different environment, and the audience loved them," said theater director Kelsey Collie.

The Playmakers are members of the Children's Theatre workshop, a summer fine arts camp for youngsters ages 6 to 17 that is based on the campus of Howard University. The group will give a fund-raising performance on the campus at the Ira Aldridge Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, and matinee shows at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $7 for adults and $3 for children.

"Pure Energy Plus" is a musical revue that will showcase several pieces that were performed in Ireland. Collie said the young performers are "motivated and energized" after gaining an international perspective.

Only 12 children and 10 chaperones were able to travel to Ireland, because the theater could not raise enough funds to send the 105 students enrolled in the theater classes, Collie said. Money was raised through local performances, grants from the city, the District chapter of the Continental Society, and support from parents and individual donors. "We barely got enough at the end to make it," Collie said.

Aside from initial apprehension about performing in an area within 10 miles of strife-torn Northern Ireland and some homesickness, the show went on, setting a precedent for international children's theater in that region.

Fourteen-year-old Daryl Spiers said his ideas about the country proved false. "I thought that everybody might be wearing green and there would be a whole lot of rocks in the streets, but they are people, too," he said.

Recounting her experience with a new friend, 9-year-old Alison McNeil said she had trouble convincing her Irish counterpart "that the steering wheels on their cars were on the wrong side and ours were on the right side."

"I think that the more kids become involved in this type of activity, the more others will be encouraged," said Ervin Williams, whose daughter Kelly went to Ireland and has been with the Children's Theatre for three years. "There are kids on the street who are just begging for things to get into. They want to change and they want to do things, but they need someone to expose them."

Collie, who has directed the children's group for 14 years, said providing opportunities for cultural exposure "helps to break down stereotypes and gives them a chance to see how other people live and learn a little about their own heritage," which is one reason the group is targeting Africa for next year's tour, Collie said. "In Africa there is a language barrier, so if we can communicate to them on stage, we are universal."