A glance at my calendar this afternoon made me aware of how many exciting opportunities for service my youth group has scheduled these final weeks of the year. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, many families have fine causes they traditionally support this time of year, too, such as collecting winter coats and packing food and gifts for shut-ins and the poor.
We all want young people to have good values, build character, and make good choices. But how do we go about fostering those qualities? Often we try to do it in the least likely way adolescents are wired to receive it: by lecturing them. There is a much better way to foster those qualities, and that is by learning by experience. This last few weeks of 2011 provide many opportunities to do so: delivering food baskets to shut-ins, preparing dinner at a community meal, caroling at a nursing home, bellringing for the Salvation Army, purchasing winter coats for children in need and a lot more.
Latrece, a classmate of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary describes the thrust of her youth work as follows: "TELL ME and I will FORGET... SHOW ME and I might REMEMBER INVOLVE ME AND I WILL GET IT." Based on my experiences with youth over the years, I wholeheartedly agree. Another benefit of this kind of learning is that it helps youth develop realistic understandings of issues and what it means to help people. It's hard work! But hopefully some caring and compassion will begin to grow, along with a feeling of accomplishment and sense of purpose.
As caring adults, we can help our young people get the most out these opportunities by helping them prepare beforehand and process the experience afterward. This is the critical component to this type of learning. This helps them connect the dots between isolated events and a lifestyle characterized by service to others. (If you just throw young people "off the deep end" without this kind of reflection you will most likely end up with a young person who is confused or frustrated by the experience. Not the outcomes we're hoping for, right?)
The other evening I took some youth to a nursing home. We brought along some board games to play with the residents. The activities director took the time to explain the range of responses that we could expect from the residents. She shared appropriate conversation starters and helped us understand their needs. She allowed time for the youth to ask questions before we headed out to the activity. This helped the evening go a lot smoother. The game night was a success. The elderly enjoyed the visit, the youth learned a lot. A spontaneous sing-along even broke out. It may have been the most fun the group had so far this year.
Afterwards, we took the time to ask the youth what was easy about the experience and what was hard. I think it's really important to let the youth honestly express how they really feel here, so the group can make the connections and really understand. In our case, we learned that games with simple rules worked better. We learned that we had to be patient and helpful. This will all come in handy the next time we help out at a nursing home and when the young people interact with the elderly in other situations. One youth summed up the evening by saying, "This isn't something I thought I could do. But I discovered that small things mean a lot."
Yep, and a lot of those small things add up a big, beautiful lifestyle.
Ian Eastman, M.A., is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.