Written on Dec 2, 2014
Today is kind of an odd day.
I spilled coffee on my hair and winter hat while rushing to class in the morning.
I forgot my school ID, therefore, I cannot print any documents and wouldn’t have been able to get into the library if it had not been for my very good friend who swiped her ID card for me.
I submitted the uncompleted version of my assignment for class.
And it happened to be a very cold and rainy day until the very end.
However, I am writing this post because a sense of peace is surging inside me. Only four hours ago, I was sitting in the working office of a group of high school students who claimed themselves to be community organizers. They belong to a youth program that has been run for four years by a social worker and I paid them a visit today. They are very committed towards doing extracurricular activities and spend a great amount of time with each other, learning how to express their opinions, facilitate workshops, promote community events and so on.
Usually, high school students start doing community services or joining organizations for selfish reasons, such as polishing resumes to get into a good college (there are exceptions of course). Certainly, this group of young people were joining the youth program for the very same reason in the first place. The program even promises to give them stipend as long as they treat their community work as a job! As I talked to them, there was 17-year-old boy who told me that he got involved because video games don’t give him a sense of accomplishment. Another friend shared with me that she didn’t have anything else to do with her life. That was very understandable because not everyone knows what he or she likes or wants to pursue when still in high school.
However, as I have been witnessing the growth of each individual in this group for almost a year, I am thrilled with delight and inspiration. Here are some reasons:
These students (mostly Asians and Hispanics) often come from immigrant families whose parents don’t speak English at home and are also authoritarian parents. The kids are not provided with many opportunities to learn how to be proactive or socially adept. They also go to New York Public Schools which are notoriously plagued with many problems. Therefore, many are self-conscious, not confident in their academic or social abilities and recoil from dreaming high. I can’t count with my fingers the number of time some friends in a public high school telling me: “But I am stupid.” Nevertheless, youth programs such as the one I briefly talk about above seek to trust and empower youth. Teenagers in this program are presented with many opportunities to talk in public, work in various teams and mingle with strangers. They are treated with a lot of respect, patience and trust. It is challenging and very time-consuming to deal with rebellious teenagers, but once these young people sense the trust that adults have in them, they will be capable of things that put everyone in awe (I am by no means implying that the teenagers in the program above are rebellious. In contrast, they are respectful and sensible). For example, my friend S. was starting out the program because of money mostly. He hated team work, doing events and constantly didn’t show any interest in whatsoever the team was discussing about. That was when he was fifteen. Now, he is the charismatic 17-year-old leader of the program who is responsible for training younger members. S. told me that he wants to be a social worker and indeed, he has been looking into colleges that offer a good program for social work. It is heart-warming to see how such a young person genuinely finds joy in making the world a better place and wants to pursue social work as a career. It takes a lot of courage and kindness to dare to dream of becoming a social worker!
I remember last year, these young friends were hesitated from talking to strangers to introduce who they are and pitch their ideas. Now, because they have been encouraged to do this job so frequently, they communicate with much more confidence. If only there were more youth programs such as this in the world, we would face less social problems that cause the stereotypes related to teenagers.
Kindness in this youth program has a domino effect. Young people haven’t experienced much of
life. They are less cynical, more genuine, kinder, more heart-warming than a lot of adults. In this program, I witness how these teenagers help each other do homework, review for tests and give advice to each other. I saw my friend T. sit for almost an hour explaining the Global History homework for another friend. I caught a glimpse of another peer joking and fixing his friend’s essay for college. Indeed, I was overwhelmed when some teenagers, younger than me asked: “Nhi, do you want me to teach you how to use the DSLR camera?” or “I can definitely teach how to use Photoshop” or even “Do you want my food?”. I remember when I was at their age, I only saw how teenagers in school would gossip about each other. Now, in this program, there was hardly any judgement or offensive remarks. Yes, conflicts did happen, but I am confident in seeing progress and character building arising from their arguments.
Today, I helped a high school sophomore fix her essay during my visit, and before we said Bye, she suddenly hugged me. We hardly talked before that, and I helped her mainly because of my own interest in editing. But she put her arms around me and smiled before running to catch the bus under the drizzle. I was moved.
They used to be strangers but now are all brought together for a greater cause. Older kids helped younger kids develop social skills and character. Older kids empower younger kids. Somewhere, kindled in the youth are the flames to do good things, to give back, to love, to forget and to feel happy.
Perhaps, one of the most important achievements of this program is that it inspires the teenagers to step out of their own world and engage more in the lives of others. Being a student is tough. Being a good student costs a lot of time. Social media are tempting. This series on Netflix makes us sit all day in bed with a bag of chips beside. Video game certainly has its charm.
Sometimes, it is difficult, very difficult to learn to think for other people and do good things on a constant basis when our lives still have so many problems and distractions. Yet, if there are more programs that connect young people to the community, these young souls will be blessed with wisdom and compassion. They will learn to care and take initiatives to make a difference instead of evolving into an adult who pursues only things with material values or easily succumb to plight. Furthermore, the more we grow up, the more responsibilities we have to bare. Thus, in my opinion, adolescence is the best time for anyone to better him/herself.
Well, if only more youth programs were created and more funding was given to reinvest in youth.