As I enter the holiday season, I can't help but get wrapped up (no pun intended) in a few reflections on gifts and how we receive and give them. Many people are fortunate to have special and nostalgic memories of the holiday season; the lights, the music, and this societal idea that regardless of which holidays you celebrate and however you celebrate them, we can all hopefully work to make things better for each other in some way.
As afterschool professionals, you are all doing this work every day as you work tirelessly to help the kids you serve. You give them so much! I'd like to sincerely and profusely thank you.
But I'd like to ask you this: Have you thanked the kids you work with for what they do for you?
When I ran a program, I would recruit volunteers by telling them that once they came in the doors, they would have a hard time not coming back. They would feel compelled to return. I would let them know that they would do amazing things for the kids in the program, but they would really return because of how the kids made them feel about themselves. The kids gave our volunteers a sense of purpose and meaning; the feeling that they were giving back and contributing. We all loved the fact that having a kid who wanted to hang out with us and look up to us made us feel pretty good about ourselves.
I know that may sound a little shallow, that we do the work we do because it makes us feel good about ourselves ... But on a most basic level, it is true. And I think that is a big part of what keeps folks coming back, at first. But there is more to it than feeling good about ourselves: Once you've invested some time in the kids you are working with, you start building a relationship and learning from them.
As an afterschool professional, you have many opportunities to learn new things. I can now ski and snowboard, play a little guitar, and hold a conversation about Minecraft, and I am reasonably up to speed on way more pop music than I ever thought I would be—all because of my career as an afterschool professional. Those are all fun and good, but what I've truly valued has been the opportunity to know so many kids from all walks of life with incredibly rich experiences that I can learn from.
Here are some of my most appreciated lessons:
To step out of my comfort zone. I learned to step out of my comfort zone as kids helped me contort my rhythmless body into whatever dance move was the thing. I can now awkwardly Jerk, Whip and Nae Nae, Superman, Cha Cha Slide, and Floss. If you come to next year's Jump Start Reception, I may just show you.
It's OK to be vulnerable. For some reason, when people get into leadership roles they can feel like they need to have all of the answers or be perfect at everything. When I was learning to snowboard alongside kids, I had this weird nagging feeling that I had to act like I knew what I was doing, despite the fact that anyone who saw me falling down, again and again, could clearly see that I had no clue what I was doing at all. I ended up making things harder on myself because I was fighting what I was supposed to be learning and felt like my confidence—totally faked—would somehow help the kids out. I quickly learned that the kids really appreciated digging me out of the snow every time I fell. They appreciated watching my arms flail, and they appreciated my screams of terror as I threw myself down a mountain steeper than I was comfortable with. They appreciated seeing my vulnerabilities and that I had to learn something too, just like them. We grew closer together because we were in it together.
Perspective. I am a white male who grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class area. For some reason, I felt like I had a reasonable grasp on the struggles others may be facing, but the reality was that I was pretty clueless about a lot of things. Before I was going to start sharing my naive bits of wisdom to help these kids out, I was going to have to do a lot of listening. It turned out that several of my assumptions about people, their experiences and their lives were way off-base. (Gasp!) If I was going to help anyone, I was going to have to open myself up more to who they were and how they got there to better understand the role I hoped to play in their lives.
Resilience. I've learned so much about resilience and grit from the kids I've worked with, and I know that through the courage they show in overcoming many of their daily challenges, they still come out stronger and better than I feel I would have if the roles were reversed. I've known kids who faced more adversity, challenges, and pain than I think any one person should endure in a lifetime, yet they persisted, showed up, and smiled every day. During my harshest days, when curling up in the fetal position under my desk seems like the best option, I now have those smiles pressing me on, telling me that there are kids with more strength than me—still smiling—so I have to try harder.
As you navigate the holiday season and reflect on the gifts you've received, I would encourage you to do a little personal inventory of how working with youth has changed you.
If you really want to do something to truly benefit the youth you serve, let them know that you are a better person because of who they are in your life and everything they teach you. Kids don't hear that nearly as much as they should.
Written by Ben Trentelman, Director of Operations, Utah Afterschool Network.
This article was republished with permission and originally appeared at Utah Afterschool Network, NAA's Utah State Affiliate.