I combined a plan that was a long time on my personal wish list, with a crazy moment of “now is the time”, and recently started my young adults discussion group, Strings of Love.
I have always found a gap in society for this. Even in schools. Even in my church. A place, even in a church, that is not a Youth Group and all that goes with that, but is also not the place for professional counselling, like Lifeline. A “half way stop” for chatting, discussing, sharing, asking and interaction. A more structured space, with a specific starting topic each time, but with enough space for a brief social chatting time and a snack at the onset. But structured talk had to be the focus. This is not intended to be the Buena Vista Social Club kind of gathering.
For years I have been chatting to young people who seek me out. Via my own kids, through their school they were at, through church, through friends of friends and all sorts of ways. This has gone on, on and off, for the past at least 20 years. Some teenage kids that turned to me for space to talk are now in their 30’s, married with their own kids. Many of them still keep contact with me. Some are still in my life, 12 years later. And from this, always, I wanted to have a more structured space.
This year, prompted by something really horrible said to me (it seems strange that the ugliness of one person who is supposed to be way better than that, can spark something so positive), I knew that this will be the year in which this will start. In May, on a half day retreat at the Jesuit Institute, there was discussion about the ties that bind us to various people in our lives. During the individual reflection afterwards in the garden, I was thinking of this and my mind leapt from ties that bind us, to strings, to love and there I had it “Strings of Love” ….. I knew that my months of prayer and discerning had been answered. The times that I had asked God ….. will I manage? Will they come? Will I know what to say?, had been dealt with. The name leapt up. I wrote it down and walked back to the common room and told the young girl who had come with me …. “I have a name”.
I set about to start my planning. The venue was easy, my office at the church is 10 steps away (in the same building) from the Adami Centre, which forms part of the house in which our offices are. I am the parish secretary of a large Catholic church and part of my “personal ministry” time is also to run the Repository for the parish. The Repository is in the Adami Centre, so it is all intertwined. It has chairs and tables and a little kitchen area and is ideally suited also for the young adults in this centrally located area who have no car and need to walk there. The hire cost that the church charges the public is affordable and so I looked no further to hire a place. My group is also very beneficial to the church as many of my members are parishioners, so as parishioners there is a “community programme” right on their doorstep that they can attend, and feel comfortable in. There is no other group like this available in a big radius, so although not included as a parish ministry, the fact that the young people know me and know many of the others there, has made it easy to get going and to include people who are not in our parish, as our young people are very welcoming.
Next up was the fact that I know that young people love to eat. And no matter what the age, hotdogs and Oros are always welcome. So I ensure that I have enough viennas and rolls to give at least 2 (sometimes 3) to each one, lots of Tomato Sauce and a big Oros. This is a great “hello and how are you” catch up time at the beginning and I usually allocate the first 30 or so minutes for everyone to arrive, eat and get ready. Trust me this gets very loud. But it is a wonderful heart-warming gathering of young people filled with joy. It is also a good time to welcome new people, or people who are not from our parish, not Catholic, not known to others etc. And our young people never let me down in this welcome. This time we even had an exchange student from Chile.
I pack the chairs out in a large circle and each time I buy / make a little bookmark / purse sized card with a message on. I encourage them to put it up on their pin boards, in their cars, in their wallets or anywhere else where they will see it regularly over the next month. This month I also bought and gave each one of them a little cross. My heart leaps when I see how kids of all ages get this excited about this little thing I give them. After the first meeting, the youngsters took to social media, posting pics of where all they had their cards. There were pics at work, varsity, school, church, sports camps …. The cards went as far as Swaziland. Heart-warming indeed.
The youngest currently attending is a Gr 10 pupil, followed by a gr 11 pupil and then there are 3 pupils in Matric, with the oldest member being 26 years old. We have a great spread across 19, 20, 21 and 22 years, and then about one or two of each 23, 24 and 26 years. Almost an even number of males as females (which is very interesting to me) and a mix of pupils, students, part-time students or people working in internships, or a full-time job. The older ones are still very student-like, if that makes sense.
We settle down in the circle, I find out who has anything big that has happened to them since we last met (good or bad) and I tell them the same. It is lovely that in any discussion they always want to hear my personal answer as well. The first time we met I was pretty anxious. I had started a Whatsapp group explaining my dream and the response had been good. But would they come? As the starting time arrived I found myself pacing up and down between the kitchen and the entrance, somewhat anxiously. My son says he was just starting to feel heartbreak for me ……and then ….. I heard car doors slamming ….. footsteps ….. voices ………. And my dream became a reality …..
Trust is imperative. That I have theirs. That they have mine. I made this clear. This group is not a catalyst for a gossip session the next day on social media. To prove my willingness to bare all to them, I put a plastic dish in the centre of the room at the first meeting, along with some pieces of cardboard and pens, and told them each one was to write down one thing they wanted to know about me. They did not have to put their names. I did not want trivial questions like favourite colour. I told them to dig deeper. I would answer unless I had a very good reason not to, and I would say so. The youngsters did not disappoint, and the type of questions they asked showed me that such a group was needed, and that many of the questions they were asking themselves, were ones they asked me. I was honest, brutally so, I never left a single question unanswered. Some made me teary, some made me have to think very well before I verbalised an answer, some made them laugh. But I answered. Because they need to see that I am serious and prepared to be there.
This past Saturday we delved into a list of “17 things not to give a damn about”. It was a good framework for issues of gossiping, the “what-ifs” or life, body image, body shaming, being right all the time, the ability of social media to destruct relationships, trust, social anxiety etc. The thing that made me the most emotional was how eagerly all of them gave input, honestly, no holds barred and that many of the issues that the guys raised, were previously thought to only be concerns for girls. It was wonderful. And proved that the fact that we once again spoke non-stop for over an hour, meant there is a need.
The group is not only open to our parish. It is not only open to Catholics. It is not only open to Christians. My group has only one criteria ….. Be You. We pray when we end the meeting. It is our way. No one is forced to join in.
So I am currently discerning over my plans for the October meeting. I spend a lot of time on the phone or meeting (outside of work time) with young people who want some one-on-one advice, help, or most often of all ….. someone to listen. They know that I am just a number away. I am happy to meet them in my lunch break or my off time, because very often just telling their story helps them sort it in their heads. I offer them space. You do not know how important that is.
My own kids (19 & 23) attend the group and their pride in me is so special it always brings me to tears.
I have been blessed that so far someone always steps up and says they want to sponsor the hotdogs and Oros because they love the concept I have come up with. I am so grateful for the assistance with the costs. However I have promised the kids that even if I have to pay the hire and food myself, this group will always go on.
So to those who said follow your dream, to those who take a genuine interest in my planning before the time, to those who are interested in hearing my thoughts after the meeting, to those who actually ask what I experienced ……. You are the wind beneath my wings. And I treasure you. Sometimes the most support comes from those we least expect it from, and vice versa.
I hope to have more and more people join.
c’est la vie xxxx