A volunteering story by: Jeremy Tecktiel
Last year, one of my favorite parts of work was being in charge of a group of high schools students from low income areas that were looking to make a difference in the world. Growing up, I had very little experience with the life of low income kids. Being able to hang out with them and learn from them once a week was a life changing experience. Most of my life has been spent with people who generally take their privilege for granted, myself included. The resiliency these kids showed me made me a better person and will stick with me forever. These weren’t kids who were naive enough to think they could change the world; they wanted to change their community. They would hold events for their peers in which they talked about very real issues, such as racial discrimination and domestic abuse. These are issues that adults have issues talking, but these kids were not fazed at all as I oversaw the planning. I would have said I helped the planning but I really didn’t do a whole lot other than make sure they were on task, because after all they are still teens. The maturity they showed when educating their peers on the issues was astounding and I can safely say that every kid in attendance left with a different view on the topic than they came with. My main job with them was to give them a place to meet and hold their events and provide them with snacks and advice should they need it, but rarely did I ever give them advice regarding anything other than staying on track. I also was a counselor at their summer camp program called AnyTown, which focuses on providing teens with the tools to facilitate discussions among their peers and other leadership abilities.
I volunteered to do this because it seemed like a nice departure from a normal work day. My boss had done it in years past and told me how much fun he had getting to know the kids. I also had just moved to Florida from Minnesota, where I had worked with teens frequently in a youth group advisor role. I enjoyed the office setting, but I really missed the goofiness the teens provided that always relaxed me. I had looked into getting involved with youth groups down here, but it was just really hard to make time with my work schedule, so I jumped at the opportunity to do it during the work day as a part of my job. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with inner city kids, but my boss just kept telling me they weren’t any different from any teens I had worked with before. They were just kids who liked to have fun and wanted to make a difference in the world. They inspired me to be a better person and it was my favorite part of every week. I was very involved in youth group myself when I was in high school and I remembered all of the adults that dedicated their time to working with us and I wanted to be that person for these kids. They immediately made me feel comfortable by getting me out of my comfort zone within the first few minutes of meeting them. They had me introduce myself by singing things about my life. I was definitely caught off guard and knew these were not normal teens, they were extraordinary teens. Every week we would start by talking about how we helped make the world a better place in the past week and their achievements inspired me to match them and come up with something each week, which is not an easy thing to do.
The Aha! moment…
I learned an immeasurable amount during this experience. I learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Some of these kids do not dress or act the way you would expect intelligent teens with bright futures to, but that is what makes them all the more inspiring. I learned that teens can have serious discussions and change the way their peers view certain situations, while still being silly. It is hard to engage your peers when you are a teenager, and even harder when you are trying to get them to have a serious conversation about a topic that may hit very close to home. Time and time again these teens were able to come up with fun, creative and inventive new ways to get the teens comfortable and in a place they felt safe enough to talk in. I learned how important it is to not care what other people think or how they view you, because their perception doesn’t change anything and is out of your control. I learned the true power of respecting your peers. At one of the events, about domestic violence, they handled a situation with one of the teens with more maturity than most adults would have, just by showing a tremendous amount of respect. I don’t know that I would have known what to do in that situation, when a topic hits too close to home with a teen and they can not handle it I would have been very uncomfortable. All the teens did is listen and provide support and show her they respected her and they were able to make a difference with everyone that was in the room. They showed me that with respect and support, any situation can go from uncomfortable to impactful in a matter of seconds. I also learned that with patience, most things will work themselves out.
To summarize it in three words…
- fun, motivated, difference-makers
Why should you do this
Unfortunately, I was not able to do it again this year, but I have still been able to keep in touch with most of the kids as they ask for advice on college and other things that complicate the lives of teenagers. But I highly recommended it to everyone else I worked with and multiple people volunteered and were excited to do it because of my experiences.