The Character Movement

small group leader leads discussion on a Kindness Retreat

Small-group leader best practice: connect first

By Sarah Gavigan, Youth Frontiers Communication Specialist

The first thing Shyla* noticed as she walked into the Kindness Retreat® was the noise of the room. It was a Tuesday and the day had just begun for Deephaven Elementary, but the fifth-graders were chatting like they had a week’s worth of life to discuss. Though their volume was great, their stature seemed quite small to Shyla. This was not what she had expected.

Shyla’s Fifth-Grade Flashback

Four years ago, Shyla attended a Kindness Retreat with her peers from Excelsior Elementary. Their room, however, was muted when the day began. The students knew each other but had little in common, it seemed. And from where Shyla sat, it was her small-group leader who was big, not she who was small.

As the music and games began, Shyla and her classmates became more comfortable with each other. Then, they truly connected during small-group sharing.

“We learned more about each other and we learned that there are people who … go through similar struggles as you do,” Shyla said. “It makes it easier to talk about life experiences with people who understand.” Shyla made long-lasting friendships that day because she and her classmates in her small group allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Shyla volunteered as a Youth Frontiers small-group leader

Shyla volunteered as a Youth Frontiers small-group leader.

Shyla’s Small-Group Leader Strategy

As a ninth grader and a small-group leader, Shyla became responsible for helping a new wave of fifth graders process how they could be kinder to themselves and to others. Even though Shyla’s memories of her fifth-grade self differed from energetic kids in front of her, she realized that openness would still be the key to connection. Everything else would follow.

“I first asked them if they had questions about high school or about me in general so that they could get to know me,” she said. “I feel like they were more productive than if they had just gone right [into the discussion questions].”

Shyla watched as her small-group students connected, built trust and strengthened their friendships. At the end of the day, the fifth graders who had cell phones exchanged numbers. “They said that if [anyone was] caught between two people being mean they could text each other.” Then, the others would meet up with them so that no one would have to endure bullying alone.

In a way, becoming a small-group leader was a fulfillment of the commitment Shyla made at the end of her own Kindness Retreat: “to make sure [everyone] has someone to talk to.” As a small-group leader, Shyla was able to be a friend to the Deephaven Elementary students and to help them strengthen their bonds to one another so that they would use their voices – loud or soft – to build each other up.

Four reasons why you should be a small-group leader, according to Shyla:

1. “It’s really fun because you’re meeting and connecting with new people, and it’s just a different environment than being in school.”

2. “Small-group leaders get to connect with the Retreat Facilitators on a different level because they meet with them before the retreat and stay for a little while after. They’re approachable and you can really talk to them.”

3. “You’re with your small group all day, but you also get to hang out with your friends before and after. You get to share your [retreat] experiences.”

4. “It’s cool to see what the fifth graders are going through now and to give them advice. You can be the person they look up to.”

Thank you, Shyla, for sharing your experience with us and for volunteering as a retreat small-group leader. Small-group leaders establish the energy and tone of the retreat and have a major influence on its success. Their main job is to meet with their student small groups several times throughout the day to lead discussions about the messages of the retreat. We could not do what we do without them. 


* Shyla is the daughter of Youth Frontiers’ board treasurer, David McFarland. She is currently a ninth grader at Minnetonka High School.

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