In May of 2008, my husband Richard assumed the role of director of Youth Education here at Unity North Atlanta. I had held that position at Christ Unity in Kennesaw where we had worked previously, and I loved the opportunity to volunteer wherever he needed me in the program. Working with the little ones some Sundays, helping with the high school kids on Wednesday nights and “guiding” the middle schoolers as a volunteer on other Sundays brought joy and satisfaction and a challenge! I was a foster parent and Group Home Director for forty years and had been almost “done in” when through admission and attrition, I ended up with a house full of middle school girls! I retired soon after!
When the position of Uniteens Coordinator was offered to me, I was excited and eager for the privilege. Uniteens range in age from 11 to 13, the years between childhood and becoming teens! The physical growth and emotional development in that time span and the variance of how that occurs in boys and girls is probably the most drastic of any period in a child’s life! Here was the chance to plant seeds and teach Unity Principles that could make such a difference in how they experience the rest of their lives.
As coordinator, my job is to plan lessons, be there on Sundays and to find and support volunteers, referred to as Guides, who come in each week to help. Over the years, I have had such a diverse and beautiful mix of congregants who have devoted a Sunday a month to being present and encouraging to our youth. Some stay for a short time and others for years.
Many years ago, I met a thirty-something woman named Carol. She and I had good fun, laughing and joking around after church many Sundays. She said she wasn’t attending the service anymore because she didn’t feel like she was getting anything from the message, so she was just hanging out in the social hall during service to visit with people afterwards. I suggested that maybe instead of believing she was at church to “get something” from the service, she could see that she had “something to give” instead. I asked her to come help me with the Uniteens the next Sunday. For the next 5 years, Carol was a Guide EVERY Sunday! She brought a sunny disposition, a loving heart, and a caring spirit. Although she had no children of her own, little experience with teens, not even a good understanding of Unity teaching, she brought a gift of giving herself vulnerable….curious….willing. Not only did Uniteens benefit from her willingness to be fully present and connected, but she was gifted with a new sense of purpose and service to her church community. She came away with new skills, new understanding of Unity Principles, greater patience (LOL) and pride in accomplishment. She created a whole new category of “friends” that she had not experienced before.
I have had many men volunteer and I always appreciate the male energy. I find it supportive to the boys in the group especially, but also to the girls, who benefit from strong, kind, male role models. In particular, three men, John, Jorge and Chris were and are rocks of stability and all three started as parent volunteers, choosing to stay on long after their teens had moved on to the high school group! I have had many Guides say they have learned so much from being part of the Uniteen experience. Open mind, open heart, open life!
So many gifted adults have stepped in to share their special skills with the kids. Sonia has taught them painting and helped them create a beautiful rock sculpture in our Organic garden. Mike gave them helicopter rides (really!!!~) John did leadership exercises and games. Sherry taught
EFT (tapping for healing) and Carolyn showed them some yoga routines. Cheryl has been a constant for many years and has been the chaperone both fall and spring for our Youth retreats. Misty has been a rock and quietly taken pictures and posted them for us as she served as a Guide. So many have been willing to share the Unity message of Oneness, and in so doing enriched their own lives as they enriched the lives of our kids.
Each year the disposition of the group changes. Some years there are kids who are mature and vocal and eager to participate. Some years, combinations of kids on any Sunday could change the whole atmosphere as personalities clashed or attention seekers flourished! There are years where kids loved the physicality of some of the games we play and other years, where they were shy and hung back. Some years I have natural leaders and other years no one wants to lead!
For many years, I had more boys than girls most Sundays. Now, it is more even, but everchanging. Boys at eleven have not had a growth spurt nor have their voices changed. Many are shorter than the girls their age and most are shorter than me. By the time they are ready to move on up, just turning 14, they are different people!
One year, I had 4 or 5 boys who were well over 6 ft. tall when it was time to graduate and they enjoyed teasing me by towering over me. Most of the kids still stick their heads back in the door to touch base after they have moved up. I love that one of the girls I had early on, still comes back to see me when she is in town. Megan has 2 darling babies now and is very proud to show them off!
Girls, too, have many physical changes in the years between 6th and 8th grade. They come in as little girls and go out as young ladies. Some are shy, others gregarious. Some have experienced eating disorders, self-harm, or clinical depression, and we have visited them in hospitals and watched as they have recovered, holding them close to our hearts.
Over time, as we are becoming enlightened and educated, gender identification is more fluid and some kids are finding freedom in exploring and discovering who they truly are and finding it safe to express themselves. In the past, before many of us understood, I had a student who is brilliant, well spoken, creative and came across as mean, rude and unkind. I sometimes found myself angry and frustrated (as I am sure she was experiencing, too, locked into an identity that didn’t bring her joy or comfort). I was ready to quit and so were some of my Guides. This child could cut to the bone with words and could out snark the snarkiest! In high school, they began to understand who they were and unfolded and blossomed as they transitioned into the Divine Being they were meant to be.
We have had kids who came into the group with hoodies over their faces, hair hanging over their eyes, quiet and unexpressive who have found something in what we say or do that has brought them back week after week. We saw them unfold….look up….eventually smile, participate and trust. One in particular, after three years, wrote me a beautiful testimony of how her life had been changed through her experience in Uniteens. Life at home had been very difficult and we had been a port in the storm. Our acceptance of her, just as she was, our encouragement and love for her allowed her to explore who she is, a confidant, smiling, energetic teen. She frequently had profound things to say in our discussions and a unique point of view.
As a group, we have a diverse ethnic mix and a broad range of personalities. We have embraced kids
with challenges both physically and emotionally. We have nurtured kids on the spectrum and those who needed special guidance. I see this as a great opportunity and am grateful to everyone who has been a part of this grand adventure.
After all these many years, I still find fresh joy in serving the Uniteens of our community and helping them to realize their Oneness with God and each other. I love finding creative ways to show them that they create their experiences by what they choose to think, feel and believe. I want them to know they make a difference. And… I want every adult who has interacted at any time with our kids to know that we are all making a difference over the long haul. Your commitment to sharing time is one way you are helping to change our world! You are a blessing to the kids, to our church, and to our community. You may never know how something you have said or expressed in an action has touched a child forever, and that legacy of your love and gift of time will continue to enrich our world through generations. We all belong to each other!
As I write this, we are in month four of the Covid-19 pandemic and are not currently meeting in our church home. On Thursday afternoons, we gather on Zoom to connect with each other and keep the channels open to learning and playing and growing. Being flexible is a skill I’m developing in a very specific way since I have never made good friends with electronics! No matter the challenge, I am committed to finding ways to keep our kids connected to community and to know they are loved beyond measure!
Reflecting back on these years, I see how my life, my attitudes, and my attention has been shaped by the very lessons I bring to the kids. My research and reading, my personal experiences with the children and adults, the teachings from Richard on Sunday and Wednesday have expanded my
knowing of who I am, what I believe and what I want to bring to the world. I feel more grounded, more loved, more generous, more genuine and more ready to speak my Truth.
In the beginning, I said that middle school girls had almost “done me in.” I’m glad I have the opportunity to see that differently. Now I know that middle school kids have brought me new life! And so it is!