Important to the social and emotional development of young people is that they adopt values to guide their behavior and become socially responsible. So it is essential in my work with youth that I provide them with many opportunities to engage the community. We talk about love, compassion, and caring every week, but perhaps even more importantly, the youth learn from experience by putting those values into action throughout the community. More work, yes, but in the end a much better learning experience for all involved. Even me.
Last November and December I promised myself that I wouldn't roll out the tired cliche "the true meaning of Christmas." I kept my word. Instead we went out into the community and did things that reflected responsibility and caring. We held a food drive and stocked shelves at a pantry. We did homemade Christmas cards and delivered them to residents of a nursing home. We assisted younger children shopping as part of a Secret Santa program. We went bellringing for Salvation Army winter relief efforts.
I eschew terms like "service project" rather teaching them that we do these things because this is who we are. We do these things because we can add to the love, compassion, and caring in the world. It is intentionally part of their formation into adulthood. Context is important, so beforehand I prepare the youth as to what to expect, and afterwards we process the experience. For instance, the evening we went bellringing, the youth learned what we were raising money for and why it was important. We rang bells, played instruments, sang, and even did a kazoo choir over three hours one evening before Christmas. Afterwards we talked about the experience and actually worked our feeling cold into the discussion, so the youth could develop empathy with the people we were helping. Young people really connect with this sort of learning and begin take on the values as their own.
The night we delivered our Christmas cards at a nursing home was a good night. The kids overcame their reluctance and warmed to the residents. It was neat to see a 12 year old and a 102 year old talking about school and Christmas traditions. We had made cards for every resident and delivery was taking longer than I anticipated. Parents would be coming soon to pick the youth up about a block away, so I rounded up the youth to make our trek back. Sam, a quiet and gentle soul, said we couldn't leave yet. I asked him why and he replied that we still had cards to give away. "What about those people?" he asked. Sam really "got it." This wasn't another activity or project to him. He was there to make sure that every resident got a personal visit at Christmas because that's the kind of guy he is. When we processed the experience afterwards, the youth suggested coming back to the nursing home after Christmas so the residents "wouldn't be forgotten about for eleven months." Moments like these are really satisfying to a youth director.
Often young people are criticized by adults for having no values or responsibility. But what are we doing to change that? Do we take the time to share our values and beliefs? Are our actions consistent with our talk? Do we ever volunteer with youth? These are all questions worth serious consideration. The good news is that young people are capable and willing to make a difference when we give them a chance.
Ian Eastman, M.A., is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.