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Adapted by Jennifer Martin and Galen Moore from Building Community in Youth Groups by Denny Rydberg.
The first step in building community is to break down the cliques and barriers that exist, and to establish a relationship of trust among the individuals in the group. A problem-solving task or other activity that requires group members to work side by side can create communal bonds. As they discuss solutions and help one another accomplish the goal, group members transcend their diverse backgrounds. Cooperation is the goal. As each person’s input is accepted and welcomed by others, they begin to identify themselves as part of the team.
When an individual can share non-threatening areas of her or his life, an exciting step in group building has taken place. If one person perceives that another is genuinely interested in her or his story, then trust will develop between the two. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. If a person perceives that others do not care enough to listen, trust, the foundation of community, will not be established. The more sympathetically a group listens, the more secure an individual feels as a member of a group.
The exercises done in this step should be flexible, so that people can share to whatever degree they feel comfortable. Participants go away from these activities enthusiastic about the deepening friendships they are developing in their group. They realize that their personal imperfections, and struggles are shared by the group. Individuals discover that their uniqueness is not strange but wonderful and the group accepts and loves them.
The act of encouraging each other through affirmation is crucial to the growing process of a group. When a young man’s peers compliment him, he feels more confident in himself in relation to the group and can share deeper feelings. When friends tell a young woman that they appreciate her, she realizes that she is worthy of love and praise. Many reclusive youth become active members of the group when they realize others care about them. Participants in affirming interactions leave feeling warm and fuzzy about the group and themselves. This feeling is especially crucial at this stage of the community building process. After Opening Up, people need positive feedback before they will consider sharing further. It is important to remember that adult leaders and advisors are an integral part of the community building process and they need affirmation just like everyone else.
Difficult situations naturally arise if the group is together long enough. These include problems that arise in group members’ lives like divorce, illness, drug abuse; or those that affect the group directly like division of the church, rules violation, cliques at conferences. These situations are opportunities for stretching. However, since many youth groups are together for only a short period you may not want to wait for a stretching experience to surface on its own. It is sometimes necessary to initiate one.
Stretching exercises reap many benefits. When people move beyond their normal comfort level they experience the greatest potential for growth. Group members facing struggles together must actively care for each other. Individuals cannot merely say they care for each other in a stretching exercise; they must actively show it. They must create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable enough to expose their imperfections to the group. For example, if the group plans a trip to the hospital to visit terminally ill children, a popular member who appears to have his life together might admit his apprehensions about talking one-on-one with those less fortunate than he. When he sees that the group still likes him, he realizes that his facade of perfection is unnecessary. And when self-critical members of the group discover that even seemingly perfect people have struggles, they will be less hard on themselves.
Through a simple stretching exercise, individuals also realize they can achieve much more as a group than they could as a collection of individuals. They realize the importance of each member to the entire group. Facing and overcoming programmed difficulties give young people the confidence that they can cope with the everyday problems they face. They learn that they can accomplish more than they thought possible, if they believe in themselves.
At this stage, individuals share deeply with one another and set goals. The youth group becomes a setting where young people can express their visions of the future and present struggles. The group will not laugh at or condemn its members if they admit they flunked a test, or that they dream of becoming a U.S. senator, or that they have a drinking problem.
When a group member shares a problem, the rest of the group gives support and encouragement by expressing sympathy. The group can help the individual talk through possible solutions and goals. The group holds the individual accountable for his or her decisions, remaining supportive throughout the process.
It is important to keep in mind that not all of a person’s thoughts are appropriate to share in a group setting. A person should be discouraged from telling the entire youth group details of her life that might hurt another member of the group. She should be encouraged to share these struggles with one another or the advisor(s) on a one to one basis, and in these conversations come up with a suitable way to bring it to the group.
Taking a group through the five steps is essential to communal group, but it is only the beginning of the exercises’ benefits. Once they have built a sense of community, participants will be ready to risk sharing with their peers in a non-programmed way. They will also be ready to set and accomplish other goals with a united effort.
There is one very important part in community building and that is making sure you are including everyone. One part that is often overlooked is that not everyone’s comfort level or physical abilities are the same. For various reasons not everyone has the same level of comfort around touch, personal sharing or personal space. Likewise, many people have varying levels of ability to engage in physical activities. Some are quite noticeable like being in a wheel chair or using some implement to assist there mobility. Others might not be as easy to see, such as trouble seeing or hearing or having a bad back so they cannot sit on the floor. Here are some helpful hints and questions to ask yourself so that your community building activities include everyone:
1. Know your audience: It is always a good idea to come into an activity with a couple of program ideas in mind so that if you have to make changes on the fly you can. Observe your audience to see if there are any obvious impediments to the activity you have planned. Always explain the activity and the ask if anyone might have a problem taking part in that activity.
2. Know what’s appropriate: Many activities involve kinds of physical contact or discussion/sharing that are okay when it's youth-with-youth or adult-with-adult but which are not appropriate for youth-with-adult. Adults should be aware of those situations and sit out or pair with other adults as appropriate. Youth should respect an adult’s decision to pass.
3. It is always ok to pass: Make it clear that any participant can pass at any time during the activities. If you are doing an intense activity, also make sure that chaplains or someone else is available to help someone process the experience.
4. Modify! Modify! Modify!: If someone cannot take part for whatever reason ask them how the activity might be modified so that they could take part. Here are some ideas you might think about using:
For active running around games ask all participants to play like they are in jello so that those who cannot run as fast have a chance.
If the game involves sitting on the floor make a chair available.
If it involved reading of a sheet of paper make sure you can provide a large print version for those who have trouble seeing.
If someone has cognitive delays assign someone to be their helper and explain things to them.
There are many more that might be helpful. Always be open to troubleshooting with the person and do not be afraid to ask questions. Flexibility is the key!
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Last updated on Monday, December 17, 2012.
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