By Julia Lawler, Youth Frontiers Retreat Director
I was not always a person who “works with youth.” In between being a youth myself and wearing the title of youth worker, there were years of necessary learning, growth and letting go.
Fresh out of college and hungry to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others, I went out looking for volunteer opportunities. I lived in New York City at the time, and while there are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of charitable organizations doing wonderful work within city limits, I was drawn to one in particular. The first time I entered the halls of the 52nd Street Project – a nonprofit that connects kids from Hell’s Kitchen with performance professionals from NYC’s theatre world – something instantly clicked. The rooms were bright and alive with energy. Children were busy making movies, baking cakes and working on homework and everywhere I looked adults and kids alike were having fun. This, I thought, is a place I want to be.
I volunteered as a mentor, a classroom assistant and an actor, playing roles straight from the pages of plays written by 10-year-olds. In my ordinary life, I was a young lady just barely five feet tall – but here, I was transformed into a football player, an aspiring singer, a life-size foot that ate only nail polish and fried chicken… It was a magical time.
During summer vacation, away from school, the kids of the “Project” have the opportunity not only to write but to act in plays written especially for them. I was invited to be a part of one of these series of plays, so in early July, I was partnered with Marcus*, an 11-year-old with wide eyes and dramatic flair in spades. He was an absolute natural onstage, delivering punch lines like a pro and memorizing the script in no time at all. During our first rehearsal in front of the other young actors, he performed his part expertly and stood beaming during his bow.
Working with children was still relatively new to me and this experience with Marcus really bolstered my confidence. “What a success!” I thought. Here’s the proof that if you put in the work and put all your energy into supporting someone else, you really can make a difference in their life.
As we got closer and closer to the public performances of our play, however, Marcus didn’t seem as enthusiastic and as proud as I had seen him before. I made sure to congratulate his hard work and compliment his funny moments onstage, yet he hardly seemed to hear me. I started to worry that something was wrong – maybe he didn’t believe me, maybe I hadn’t somehow done enough to support and encourage him.
On our closing night, I gave Marcus a final hug and told him, “I hope you feel really proud of yourself. You were so fantastic out there.” In response, he merely shrugged, said goodbye and headed out the door with his family. I felt crushed. Maybe this had not been the glorious and meaningful experience I had so wanted it to be.
My disappointment must have showed somehow as the adult directors, actors and staff gathered for a post-show potluck. George, the Project’s Production Manager and an all-around great guy, approached me over our chips and dip.
“So – how’d it go?”
I took his question to heart and voiced my worries.
“Marcus did such a fantastic job, but I’m not sure if he really believes it! He was so happy back in rehearsals and I just didn’t see that same spark in performances. I just – I really wanted this to be important to him.”
George took this in and said something in response that has stayed with me since – both in my work with youth and in many of my relationships in life.
“We’re just here to plant seeds. You never know how this time truly impacted him – now, or down the road. You just plant the seeds and trust that they will grow all on their own.”
At Youth Frontiers, our Retreat Staff take great pride in the work we do with youth every day. We love what we do and, more importantly, we care deeply about the children we work with. We hope that our words inspire and encourage them to make positive changes in their lives, to take responsibility for their actions and to treat the people around them with respect and kindness. When you care so deeply about the impact you have, it can be difficult not to get attached to a certain outcome. We bring to our work great consideration and intention and we hope to see those efforts bear fruit.
Years later, sometimes I still forget this lesson. I struggle with frustration when I just can’t seem to get through to a kid – disappointment when that lightbulb doesn’t seem to be going off. In those moments, I remind myself of those wise words.
We are planting seeds. Through our words, our ideas and our work – we plant seeds and allow them time and space to grow.
*Child’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.