Camps, “Cons” & Compasses

I continue with my unschooling theme and my quest to convince people who are skeptical that this is a valid learning path for some as an alternative primary educational “engine” to formal schooling. Just to recap, our son Eric left school in the middle of eighth grade and our daughter Emma after ninth. Eric has had no “formal” schooling since then. Emma has taken several French courses at community college along with a six-week French language immersion school in Montreal, Canada. The many things they have learned since then have been in the context of “real life” and some tutors that Emma has hooked up with along the way to help her learn dance, piano, art, and now continue her study of French.

Anyway… on with the post!

When Emma was 12 and Eric was 15, they got involved in the Unitarian-Universalist regional youth community. I can think of no single association that was more developmentally significant in the years of their older youth. As I had my JLO (Junior Light Opera) youth theater community, they had their YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian-Universalists).

From my experience, many older youth (a term I prefer to the term “teenager”, with all its loaded connotations particularly among adults) enjoy opportunities to be part of larger groups of other older youth. I believe there is a certain critical mass to a larger group of teens that can allow those kids seeking the spotlight and eager to play an active role in a group and those trying to avoid the spotlight and play more of an observer or follower role to coexist and even benefit from each others’ proclivities.

My first encounter with this larger UU youth community was when I took my 12-year-old daughter Emma up to a UU middle school “Leadership Camp” in 2001 at their camp facility at DeBenneville Pines, a half-hour up the mountain from Redlands, CA and not to far from Big Bear. The camp was an interesting and not necessarily successful attempt at youth developmental programming, but it was an eye opener for me.

Unless you are one of that rare breed that is familiar with Unitarian-Universalism, you need to know that it is a very politically liberal group mixing theists, agnostics and atheists in non-dogmatic many-spiritual-paths association that is generally marketed as a religion, though others would argue to the contrary. And UUs are known for loving to discuss such topics, form committees and have meetings… most of us are total process junkies actually.

The standard joke about UUs is that when other people die they go to heaven, but when UUs die they go to a discussion about heaven. There is a lot of truth in this, I would certainly say that UUs view meetings as an exercise in worship, and in no other venue have I learned more about meeting and other process skills.

So enough for context… our story returns to me accompanying my daughter and two of her fellow younger UU teens up to the “Leadership Development” camp for middle-school age kids. The idea of the event was to do workshops for the kids and the adults, some separately and some together, to teach all of us group development theory, skills and techniques. They programmed the whole weekend with various discussions, instructional sessions and practicum to give us all a chance to learn and practice these group development practices. In typical UU fashion it was maybe a bit too much like a discussion about heaven rather than heaven itself.

I for one learned a lot of great skills and my accompanying teens did as well, but they also rebelled at the heavy schedule of school-like sessions and the minimal time for informal group interactions that older youth thrive on. Those adults who had planned the camp got that feedback, and future younger teen camps were structured more to the liking of the participants. But I was impressed that they had risked trying something like this.

I was also particularly impressed with the older high school age youth that were there at the event, serving (along with adults like myself) as cabin counselors to the younger youth participants. The young woman in my daughter’s cabin was a very poised, smart as a whip, 15-year-old who was a born leader (and over the next two years I would see repeated evidence of the great respect she commanded from her comrades). I had several discussions with her about the YRUU group and told her that I had a son her age. She urged me to get him up to one of the UU high school camps.

These older youth were all part of a youth organization set up by the UU denomination, that was basically run by the youth through an elected youth Board and a small group of adult advisors. I would soon learn that the YRUU group was responsible for…

* Programming and running yearly summer (week-long) and winter (long weekend) high school age youth camps at the DeBenneville facility. The YRUU Board would select a “Youth Dean” who, advised by that camp’s “Adult Dean” would take on the job of recruiting a youth staff for the camp and leading the effort to develop all the workshops, worships, dances, talent shows, hikes, “raps” (discussions), and other camp events. Besides the “Dean”, youth staff would include, youth Chaplains, workshop/event coordinator, and “Touch Group” (small groups to better weave the participants into the larger community) leaders

* Programming in a similar fashion for youth events at yearly UU district and national conferences

* Scheduling or at least sanctioning three to five weekend older youth “Cons” throughout the year throughout the district, which in our case included Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. These events were also completely planned and staffed by youth, including all the logistical considerations including food.

* Holding regular quarterly meetings to identify youth leadership for organizing the above events and yearly elections (at the district older youth summer camp) for Board President, Secretary, Treasurer and other positions

Both our daughter Emma and her brother Eric became very involved in this group, developing many friends and organizational skills along the way. It was a group where, at least as far as I could see, individual uniqueness was celebrated instead of individual conformity. It allowed older youth to explore various personas and even sexual orientations. I noted with great interest that their conference “raps” (intensive discussions) included some mixed gender sessions but also male only, female only, and what they called “gender queer” only.

At age 16, Emma got elected (uncontested) to the Secretary position on the YRUU Board and also was a “Co-Dean” of that summer’s camp at DeBenneville Pines. The next year she successfully ran for the Board President position, including some political finesse convincing a past Board President, two years her elder, not to run against her. For a shy kid (not unlike myself at her age) this was a great developmental leap and gave her a huge shot of self esteem, which is such a precious commodity for older youth, particularly those of the female persuasion.

At age 17, Eric conceived, organized and led a “con” (weekend youth conference) titled “the awsomepolice have taken over this con”. It was a theater of the absurd theme of sorts that involved Eric and all his fellow conference “staff” dressing up in bizarre costumes and making somewhat off the wall appearances and pronouncements throughout the weekend event, while in fact managing the event with all their collective abilities. He also decided to do something unusual with the food as well.

Normally these weekend events had kind of basic food, purchased and prepared by the kids themselves, which often involved simple fare like cereal and spaghetti. Eric recruited one of his friends that was a gourmet cook, got attendees to pay a little more than the typical $20, and prepared a real gourmet meal including handmade gnocchi with a nice marinara sauce for one of the evening meals. I was not in attendance, but as I far as I heard the event was a great success.

From their YRUU experiences such as these I’ve shared, both our kids have become comfortable with organizing groups, planning events and generally playing collaborative and leadership roles among their peers. They both have circles of very dear and supportive friends made within this group over the years. It also gives me great pleasure to see how comfortable they are among older adults, because it seems that many young adults are not.

Navigating a path forward within this small but challenging community, amidst the strong ethical context of Unitarian-Universalism, has really helped both Emma and Eric develop a strong ethical sense of direction, and the activist skills to make good things happen. After his experiences, it was no huge stretch for Eric to take on a leadership role keeping three other talented partners focused on the critical tasks of launching and keeping afloat a small business, while navigating troubled economic currents. And for Emma, wearing the hat of manager (on Sundays) at a small restaurant, supervising a half dozen other staff, was a challenge she could comfortably rise to as well.

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