In my experience when working with children and young people through fun, engaging and enjoyable activities it can be easy to stay on the surface level of friendship and relationship. It is easy to focus on the planning, preparation and good execution of activities and programmes.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, it is a joy to have fun activities for children and young people, especially when the majority of the children and young people attending live their lives in constant ‘high alert’ and have challenging home situations. Providing a safe and fun space for them to engage in activities and learn new skills and explore themes is fantastic.
Yet, there is something more valuable that can also happen in these spaces, something that goes deeper than surface level friendship, where real relationship takes place.
I have seen this happen when safe places have been created for not just activities, learning and fun, but acceptance, understanding and love. When a child or young person can simply be.
Be themselves fully and unashamedly, whatever that looks like.
I have been, and still am, learning a lot about what this looks like and how this can impact not just the children and young people we work with but us too, me too.
A few weeks ago I was in Centro Opp hosting an activity for the older youth, now young men in their late teens/early twenties. It had been a long day and I was tired. The youth and I had enjoyed a lovely meal together with pleasant conversations and laughter, we had done the dishes and it was almost time to head home. I was sat on the big comfy sofa in the living room style space of the centre, with bulb string lights and plants hanging from the trellis above. It really is a lovely space, warm and welcoming. One of the young men came and sat with me, the others dotted about the centre playing games and chatting together.
Without any questions or prompts from me, he started to share about some of his challenges and troubles. As he opened up his heart and life to me, I sat listening and praying. Asking God to help me, to give me the wisdom to have the right words to say and also the ability to share them well in Spanish. When he stopped sharing and asked me for my thoughts and advice I looked across the sofa at this brave young man sat in front of me who had just bared his soul and I knew what he needed most in this moment was to feel safe, accepted and loved. His challenges with identity were impacting his self-esteem, his home life and his work. He honestly wasn’t sure who he was. I didn’t even notice the time pass as we sat together. I was able to share with him how much God cares for him and how he is known, seen and loved. God was reminding me of those truths about myself too. I was so thankful for the opportunity to encourage him and show him some of God’s love.
It was a reminder of why I am here, why I do what I do and what things matter most. The shared meal was lovely and the games were fun but this conversation was about true, real relationship. Meeting someone exactly where they are at and simply loving them there.
Earlier this year I started mentoring a 13 year old girl, she is an absolute delight. She is full of energy and life, her inquisitive and curious nature means that she is always asking questions and when we are in our mentoring sessions it feels like there is never a dull moment. We quickly settled into a good rhythm together in our sessions, doing homework, crafts and playing games together. We also go out once a month to eat with David (my boyfriend) and his mentee too. We are super thankful that our mentees get on really well together and like spending time as a four, recently we all went to the zoo as a special treat and had an absolute blast.
In more recent weeks, after months of building trust and confidence, my mentee has also started to share more with me, but always with her guard up, never too much. We have begun to have deeper conversations and she has been opening up little by little about her life, but still never really showing too much emotion. It has felt a bit like baby steps. With her positive energy and lively character it can be easy to simply go, spend an hour together having fun, laughing and doing activities. At times it is easier to stay on the surface, forgetting that there is a whole life happening outside this one hour a week together and there are reasons why she is in the foundation and needs support. I have found that I have to be intentional to go beyond the surface, to have real relationship.
Two weeks ago we started our mentoring session like normal and my mentee was asking questions about my week and I hers and everything felt fine. Suddenly, she stopped talking and just sat on the sofa hugging a pillow. It was like a switch went off, I had never seen her like this before and I was worried. I know some of her challenges at home and was worried something had happened to upset her. I tried asking her what she was feeling, if something had happened. I reassured her that she didn’t have to share with me but could if she wanted to. I gave her space to just be silent, I tried distracting her by showing her photos and videos of an event we had just done to raise funds. I tried lots of things, all the while praying silently that God would help me to help her. But nothing, she sat silent and at times with the slight glimmer of tears in her eyes, but she didn’t say a word.
So, we just sat together, a whole hour almost passed and finally I told her it was almost time for me to go, but that I would stay longer if she wanted me to. I think that surprised her, that I would stay even though we were simply sat, doing nothing and she hadn’t even spoken to me. In that moment she finally told me what had upset her. We talked about what was bothering her and I thanked her for sharing with me. I was so pleased that we could pray together and she had felt able to share in the end. This was a turning point for both of us in our mentor/mentee relationship. She was able to share with me and feel heard and supported and I saw her be more vulnerable and trusting.
It was also a real reminder that behind the cheerful, bubbly girl who normally just wanted to chat, play and have fun, who was very good at keeping her guard up and not giving too much away, there is a young girl who wants and needs to be loved and cared for. When we last prayed together she thanked God for placing someone special in her life to spend time with and who cared about her.
Activities and programmes are amazing in lots of ways, more and more I am learning that the way they are most amazing for me is that they facilitate. They facilitate by providing the space and purpose for coming together with the children and young people. They provide the consistency for trust and confidence to grow. And they act as a starting point for the real relationships to happen. However, like I mentioned before it takes openness and intentionality for things to go beyond the surface.