06 February 2011

Young Heroes and Junior Youth Groups: Comparisons and Lessons Learned

From 2001-2002, I served as a corps member with City Year Cleveland. City Year is a year of service program for 17-24 year olds that draws inspiration from the nonprofit, corporate, government, and military models in order to engage young adults in an annual campaign of service. I was 18 years old when I joined, fresh out of high school, and the impact CY had on the way I work, serve, and lead has been immeasurable. One of my primary areas of service in City Year was the Young Heroes program, which eventually led me on the path to becoming a junior youth animator.

Young Heroes is a service-learning program for 6th-8th grade students, led by City Year corps members. At the time I was involved in the program, Young Heroes Cleveland engaged about 80 students in educational service activities all day, every other Saturday. Teams of ~10 students were each led by two corps members, who were in turn coordinated and organized by a small leadership team of other corps members.

What did I learn from Young Heroes?

Most of the cooperative games, unity-building activities, and icebreakers I know come from my experience with Young Heroes. My understanding of hoon a given saw to work with 11-14 year olds does too. I also learned a lot about documentation and organizational partnerships, which I think I ought to utilize more effectively as a junior youth group animator. But there are a number of ways in which the Young Heroes model is not conducive to what the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program hopes to accomplish. I've had to learn to keep these in mind in my work as an animator, in order to avoid unhelpful cross-pollinations.

How do Young Heroes and the JYSEP differ?

1. Intent

Young Heroes is a youth development program, not a community development program. There are no corresponding Older Heroes programs for the adults in the Young Heroes' lives. The teams of Young Heroes are formed randomly, so that team members may not live in the same neighborhood or even attend the same school. Service sites are chosen for their educational value and their ability to handle a massive influx of very young volunteers on a given Saturday, and not due to any immediate applicability in the lives of those who go to serve.

2. Education vs. Empowerment

Despite its focus on youth development, there is little emphasis on empowering the Young Heroes to take on the responsibilities of the program itself. In contrast with the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, in which junior youth begin with simple, animator-guided service projects and eventually grow towards planning and implementing complex acts of service on their own, Young Heroes remains entrenched in the delivery model of development and education.

3. Relationships and Continuity

Although relationships may form between Young Heroes and their team leaders, these bonds do not extend to include the parents, families, friends, teachers, and neighbors who are also a vital part of the Young Heroes' lives. Any communication with parents is generic and in written form, with no consideration of language or literacy. The relationships that do exist last only from recruitment in the fall until graduation in the spring. Each year, a new crop of corps members takes over, and the program begins again. New teams form with new names, new students, and no sense of progression. Nothing builds on the year before. While acts of service are encouraged, they are event-focused. Discerning and embarking upon one's own path of service is not a part of the program.

What can animators learn from City Year and Young Heroes?

City Year has a wonderful record of service, and has a lot of fantastic experience on which to draw. The constant emphasis on RASL (Research And Systematic Learning) is one that can help youth and junior youth develop habits of insightful reflection very early on in their lives. The RASL chant, "Is what? So what? Now what?" could become a mantra for reflection gatherings, and is simple enough for even young children to understand and implement. The culture of storytelling-as-proof creates a self-reinforcing commitment and idealism. Both "starfish" (stories of having made a small difference to one person) and "ripples of hope" (stories of service and justice that had an impact far beyond the initial statement or act) are sought out and shared at every gathering. RASL and stories combined create a powerful combination of encouragement and learning that any animator, tutor, or coordinator would do well to harness.

Young Heroes also makes its presence known to the community unmatched by junior youth groups at their current stage of development (at least in the communities I have lived in or visited). From their constant contact with government and business leaders in the community to their bright uniforms, City Year (and the Young Heroes program) makes certain their reputation is both inspirational and unmistakable. While our junior youth groups are currently growing behind the scenes at an organic pace, the acceleration of this process means being more public with the good we do in a way that is both bold and humble, professional yet true.

In general, both Young Heroes and the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program see that there is a vast reservoir of energy and talent in our young people, which can and should be devoted to the advancement of our communities. City Year, like the public schools they serve, aim to gather up all the willing numbers they can muster in the few cities in which they operate, and with the resources at hand, offer them a taste of the beauty and a few of the skills necessary for transformative service. The JYSEP has begun with far fewer human and material resources locally, but in far more locations around the world, and is growing at a pace that Young Heroes cannot, with its reliance on sponsorships and infrastructure, ever hope to replicate. Both have their struggles and their strengths.

For those who serve as animators, in what other contexts have you worked with young people? As a mentor, tutor, instructor, or coach? What are some of the valuable lessons you have gathered from these activities? What important distinctions would you draw?

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