By Debra G, Youth Frontiers Retreat Musician
I first met Aña* at a Courage Retreat for Fridley Middle School’s eighth graders around 13 years ago. It was the school’s first Courage Retreat, and the space we held it in was dark and almost too small for the number of students who participated that day.
My first interaction with Aña was in the morning. I went over to encourage her to participate and not blurt out. The words she was choosing to express herself and to let me know how she wasn’t going to listen to me, or any adult for that matter, were… let’s just say not appropriate to share here.
I made a choice. I wanted her to be on that retreat, even if she was being disrespectful to everyone who tried to include her. I told her that she was being rude and that there was no reason for her to talk to anyone like she was. I explained that if she wanted someone to show her respect, she also had to show respect for them.
Aña rolled her eyes and continued to be disrespectful throughout the day, blurting out and laughing at inappropriate times. Even at the end of the retreat, when her classmates were sharing, she treated it like a joke. Honestly, the only time Aña stopped being disrespectful was when I sang my song before the students shared their “Act of Courage.” The song is called, “The Plea.”
Fast forward to the next year. I helped lead Johnson High School’s first Respect Retreat. And guess what – Aña was on it as a ninth grader. I walked up to her and said, “You look familiar,” with an “I remember exactly who you are” look. She blew me off, rolled her eyes and kind of laughed to her friends, pretending like I wasn’t there.
On this retreat, thankfully, she wasn’t blurting out during everything but she definitely acted like “This is so stupid. Why do I have to go through this again?” She huffed and puffed more than a few times. I knew if I called her out for anything, it would only make the situation worse. So, we let Aña and her friends have their “moments” to express their disappointment in having to be there. I played “The Plea” again at the end of this retreat.
Fast forward a few more years. Aña is now a junior, and she’s a small-group leader. But this time I didn’t recognize her; she recognized me. She walked up to me with a huge smile and asked, “Do you remember me?”
With an awkward smile, I said, “I’m sure I do… but remind me.”
She said, “You were on my first two retreats. I was the girl who was super angry and may have said some mean things to you… I was mean to a lot of people. Life was hard back then.”
It all came back to me! “Oh my gosh!” I said. “I totally remember you. Something’s different!
She said, “I’m starting to be happy.”
Aña was a small-group leader on every Johnson High School Respect Retreat her junior and senior years. (That’s four retreats each year!) I just so happened to be on all of them. I also played “The Plea” on every one.
Aña never got up to speak until her senior year, at the last Respect Retreat that she would ever attend. Aña walked to the center, picked up the mic and said, “I’ve been on ten retreats now. I’ve never gotten up to share. This is the last retreat that my class and I will be small-group leaders on.” She took a big breath. “My life at home has been very tough. I don’t have a great relationship with my mom. This made me an angry and mean kid. I used to bring that anger to school and take it out on everyone else. But there’s one person that I need to thank. She helped me through this. I downloaded her song, and she’s played it on every retreat I’ve been on.”
She turned to me and thanked me for never giving up on her. I cried. She cried. She put the mic down and came over to give me a big hug. That moment renewed my purpose at Youth Frontiers. In that moment, I saw the impact these retreats can have on students’ lives.
Fast forward 10 years. On December 29, 2016, I was celebrating my friend’s birthday day by singing Karaoke. I got up to sing, but before I started, a woman grabbed my arm and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s you!”
I looked at her and said, “Hey, I know you…” but I didn’t put two and two together. When I finished singing, the woman grabbed me again and gave me a big hug. “It’s Aña,” she said.
“What?! Oh my goodness… it’s you,” I replied.
We both had tears in our eyes. I told her that she’s been a part of my life story and that I think about her often. Aña told me that she talks to her two daughters about me, about her journey with Youth Frontiers and about the retreats’ messages. She then told me that in 2006 her home life improved because she made amends with her mom.
It just so happened that her mom was there with her. I introduced myself and told Aña’s mom who I was and how awesome her daughter is. Her mom responded, “Oh! I’ve heard of you. Aña talks about you and those retreats all the time.”
Her mom continued to tell me that because Aña found the courage to express that she wasn’t happy with their relationship, she worked hard to start making positive choices to improve their connection as mother and daughter. I could tell in that revelation that Aña’s mom was expressing her thanks and praise for the all the encouragement and support Aña received on our retreats.
We don’t always get to see how our one-day retreats help kids. I know that they can help students grow and understand that they matter and what they do matters. This is just one story, but I believe there are many more like it out there. I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to be a part of Aña’s and to see her character develop over time.
*Name changed for privacy.