The Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment program in Action
I’ve had a great many wonderful moments in my life but some of the most fulfilling ones were spent teaching children in my neighborhood in Anchorage. This journey started when I moved into Mt. View with the intention of actively participating in a Bahai-inspired community building process. When I got to Mt. View, I was struck by how different it was from the way of life that I was used to while living on a tiny Polynesian island. People kept to themselves and pretty much don’t know who their next door neighbors are. While still trying to settle into my new home, I tried with the help of a friend to walk around the block, knock on every door and introduce myself to my new neighbors. While this certainly helped, it didn’t really spark any friendship or have any lasting effects. After a few months of living in the neighborhood, a few other youths joined the team. At one of our youth gatherings, we decided that we would have a youth service project of picking up trash on our street. When we came outside to start our project, we saw kids hanging out in the street. We invited all of them and more than 10 of them joyfully tagged along to help us. There was so much joy and laugher while we were picking up trash and getting to know each other. It felt like we had been friends for a long time!
Soon after the service project on that same day, we were inspired to start a children’s class and junior youth group. We asked the kids about it and there was a lot of excitement and interest in coming together on a weekly basis. We all started going door to door with the children and started telling parents about the programs and to get their permission for their children to participate. All the parents happily agreed for all their children to come. They loved the idea that the programs encourage a service oriented attitude towards everything and the fact that we were picking up trash with their children an hour ago. As a result of our visits, we started our children’s class with 7 children and a junior youth group with 9 junior youths the following day. Of all my experiences as a resource for this process, I have never had a very diverse group of children coming together. The kids range from ages 6 to 9 in the children’s class and 11 to 14 in the junior youth group. We are mostly known as the Tarwater class and group because everyone lives on Tarwater street in Mt. View.
As we consistently have our weekly meetings, and occasional parent visits, we started to become known to parents because the kids would always tell them they were at our house. Since we started meeting, our house became the center of our street because all the kids will be hanging out there with us. They would bring their homework and we often would be playing tag or dodge ball outside. Our street became our playground because that was the biggest place where everyone can play.
Our class has gone through some rough times too. When we first started meeting, the kids weren’t exactly the best of friends. They didn’t really play with each other before. So, as the kids were getting to know us, they were also getting to know each other. We noticed that the behavior of each kid often reflected a lot of their environment at home. Some of them used a lot of profanity, others played rough and some wanted to play with certain kids and not others. They knew how diverse they were but didn’t know how to embrace it. This started changing as we spent more and more time together.
As the kids came over to our house daily, parents started noticing. One day when I was home hanging out with some of the kids, a junior youth ran over with a message from her mother. The mother was asking if she could come over and hang out with us. I didn’t know what to make of it. I said yes and started to make dinner for the parent. Thoughts were running through my mind thinking what has brought this about. As the visit from the parent went on, we talked about the class, the group, and what we do with the kids every day after school, and things about ourselves. The parent commented, “6 of my kids come here every single day and I just wanted to get to know you guys better.” This parent made me realize that I needed to visit the parents more often on a regular basis. As the kids were coming over every single day, we came up with an idea to host a parent evening on a regular basis. This helped us connect with all the parents but it was also a way for the parents to connect with each other and really get to know their neighbors.
About a year ago, I didn’t know any of my neighbors. Now, most of them have become my family. I am included in consultation about things that are going on in their lives, I am constantly asked to help talk to the children about things going on with them. I am also someone they go to to share, vent, seek help from and most importantly to share the joys of their lives with. With the struggles and joys alike, our bonds solidify through our mutual support of each other in all aspects of our lives. These relationships bring a lot of joy, true happiness, and meaning to my life.