Starting a new youth service program from scratch for the AFSC and Southern California Quarterly Meeting was a "learning experience" that taught me of the importance of common sense, and Divine intervention. Had God not nudged me along--at times, kicking and screaming--I would never have undertaken this high-risk venture.
"Are you sure you know what you are doing?" my wife asked when I first told her that I had a leading to help start a Quaker youth project. This was a very good question. Nothing in my previous experience as a high school teacher and camp counselor had quite prepared me for this kind of endeavor, so I sought out the help of seasoned Friends, like Bob Vogel and Jeanette Norton, who had worked with Quaker youth before. Their advice and support proved essential.
I also had to deal with doubting Thomases who said, "Get the AFSC and Friends to work together on a jointly funded project? Impossible!" Some adults even insisted, "Kids today aren't interested in service. They just want to get good grades and party."
Fortunately, I trusted in my Inner Guide, and in the youth, rather than in the skeptics. The response from youth to our service projects has been enthusiastic, our collaboration with the AFSC has worked far better than expected, and God has always been there when needed. Over the past five years, we have completed 13 weekend projects, each involving fifteen to twenty teens and adult helpers, and each selected by our youth. Among other things, we have painted homeless shelters in our local communities and in Mexico; we volunteered twice at an AIDS center in downtown L.A; we cleaned up debris at a migrant camp in San Diego county; and we did environmental work at a shelter for abandoned wild animals. We also completed our first weeklong project in a colonia called Maclovio Rojas near Tijuana, Mexico. This community had no running water, paved roads, or electricity, but it has a powerful community spirit that really inspired our youth. During the course of a week we put up sheet rock at a Women's Center, assembled playground equipment, help organize a library, and worked on a community center. Seventeen youth and thirteen adults participated in this project, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive:
· "Spending a week doing this service project is what really makes an infinite amount of difference. This experience has changed my perspective utterly and given new fire to old convictions. That these projects speak to the heart of Quakerism is beyond all doubt." -Holly Summers, Quaker youth from La Jolla.
· "I learned more this week than in any other in my life." -Anna Morgan, Quaker teen from Orange County.
· "I've learned some more about the struggle of being a teenager, of being an adult who cares deeply about teenagers (especially this group of teens), and about being a parent. I'm once again awed by the way the spirit lives and works within and among us." -Iris Graville, parent from Oregon.
Positive life-changing experiences like these are, in my view, the work of the Holy Spirit, but they also require careful planning and preparation. No project is ever perfect and problems inevitably occur, but if certain common sense steps are taken, disasters can be usually be avoided. Here are some of the practical things that we have learned are needed for a successful, Spirit-led youth program:
1) Supportive parents and adults. We could not do our work on a shoestring budget (the only kind of budget most youth projects end up with) unless we had the committed and wholehearted support of parents and adult volunteers. These FAP's (Friendly Adult Presences) serve as chauffeurs, go-fers, and overnight chaperones. They also serve as role models for youth, showing them that volunteerism is not just "kid stuff." Seeing adults painting, digging trenches, and otherwise getting their hands dirty for a good cause, can be a real inspiration to youth. No amount of lecturing on Quakerism has the impact of seeing gray-haired Friend working up a sweat, sleeping on hard floors, opening up their hearts to those in need, and letting their lives speak.
2) A mix of male and female FAP's. In these days of heightened sensitivity about sexual harassment, both perspectives are needed, particularly for overnight projects. Volunteers and staff should receive counseling about appropriate behavior. The AFSC and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have both prepared excellent guidelines for FAP's.
3) A paid coordinator. The task of coordinating a youth service program is too time-consuming to be done by a volunteer, and it would be prohibitively expensive for the participants to pay the coordinator's salary along with all the other costs. We charge around $25 for a weekend project, and around $200 for a weeklong project--which covers only transportation, food, and lodging. The coordinator's and youth assistant's salary and expenses are paid through matching funds from the Quarter and the AFSC. The Quarter provides volunteer helpers, and the AFSC professional expertise. Both organizations benefit greatly from this arrangement.
4) Youth assistant or counselors. Having young adults as counselors makes a huge difference. Young adults serve as an important link between the teenage and middle-age world view. We always pay our youth assistants a modest stipend, and they are worth every penny.
5) Insurance. Our Quarterly Meeting provides basic insurance coverage, but we also purchase additional insurance at a low weekly rate ($1 per week) through the American Friends Service Committee when we do a special project, like the one in Mexico. No youth project should be undertaken without adequate insurance.