A summer project that fostered the core activities at a homeless shelter and other locations on Long Island, New York, was born of a desire by Baha’i institutions in the Northeast to engage in a process of learning how to mobilize youths.
The three Regional Baha’i Council members who live on Long Island set the project in motion there by holding a meeting of parents. The assemblage consulted about the importance and purpose of a youth project and determined what dates would best fit into family schedules.
Next the youths were invited to meet, and the 19 who did — accompanied by some young adults from New York City — considered many possibilities.
“The resounding decision was that the youth wanted to engage in service and have that service open up opportunities for teaching the Faith,” says Marie McNair, a member of the Regional Council.
From the larger meeting, a committee was brought into being and set out over several months to plan what would be called the Youth in Service Project.
Youths were joined on the committee by the Council members, the Area Teaching Committee secretary, the cluster institute coordinator and a few parents.
Opening of the project on July 12 saw about 30 youths from throughout the Northeast and as far away as Missouri, Washington, DC, and North Carolina.
Auxiliary Board member Bruce Grover and the three Council members – McNair, Harriet Pasca-Ortgies and Harry Ortgies – helped the group focus on guidance from the Universal House of Justice about meaningful and distinctive conversations as the first step in a process of growth.
Smaller groups then went to work on preparing for various aspects of the project.
First job: Host a Feast gathering in July with all Baha’is on Long Island invited. The joyous event filled the Baha’i Center to capacity.
“After sharing a beautiful devotional program consisting of music, prayers and writings arranged by some of the youth, two additional youths, Lilly and Alex Mohtadi, did a wonderful job of co-chairing the Feast, which included dynamic consultation on the subject of empowering youth,” recalls McNair.
Next up: After prayers at the home of one of the local believers the next morning, the youths and adults, among them Auxiliary Board member Gilbert Smith, traveled to a soup kitchen.
The group prepared and served a barbecue lunch to neighborhood people, some of whom would be enjoying their only meal of the day.
The youths even took the soup kitchen mobile, loading nonperishable food items and taking them to community centers and housing projects at various locations across Long Island.
That night, project participants screened the documentary film Education Under Fire concerning the denial of education to young Baha’is in Iran.
Discussion and a Web video conversation with a young believer in Iran followed, ending in prayers and songs together.
The following day, Auxiliary Board member Martha Martinez led a workshop on how to share prayers. Then at a homeless shelter, youths conducted a “family fun day” for the families residing there.
“Complete with a barbecue, games and activities for the children, gift baskets for each family donated by the Long Island Spiritual Assemblies, and meaningful conversations about the Faith with young and old, the day was a huge success,” says McNair.
Not yet finished for the day, the youths traveled back to the Baha’i Center to conduct an interactive fireside attended by about 60 people.
The last day found the youth enjoying a brunch at the Baha’i Center, followed by an opportunity to reflect together about the project – how they felt about it, what they learned, and how they planned to follow up at home.
McNair says they expressed a deep desire to be involved in service in their home communities and talked about how engaging in service enabled them to show people who they are and what they are doing to help humanity by touching hearts and building relationships.
“The project made it easy to open doors with people and led quite naturally to conversations about the Faith,” she notes.
“They learned a great deal about themselves in the process and about what it means to do service — about purity of motive and that more important than what they do is how they do it.”
Among follow-up plans made by youths were to become a junior youth group animator; volunteer at a day care center, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen; conduct children’s classes; and plan for another Youth in Service Project next year.
The adults involved have also engaged in a series of reflections on the cluster and regional levels, says McNair.
Among the observations were:
- It is energizing when people get together to help. So many became involved in the project, providing housing, transportation and meals among other things.
- Confidence that the youths gained from the project led to capacity building and resource development, which in turn brought abounding confirmations.
- Youths were at the forefront of the planning, with accompaniment by adults. The adults really listened to the youths but also brought a greater awareness of the Five Year Plan. In that sense, the needs of the Plan were served, and the adults functioned in some sense as animators.
- The project was conducive to building unity on all levels.
McNair says plans for next steps are moving forward.
Locally, the Area Teaching Committee has asked parents, Assemblies, and cluster agencies serving all the youths to keep encouraging and engaging them in moving to the forefront of service. The Youth Project Planning Committee has planned more service activities.
At the regional level, consultation on what has been learned about mobilizing youth is to continue at an inter-institutional gathering.
As one of the Auxiliary Board members involved stated, “I noted a step forward in empowering the youth to do exactly what the Council was seeking to learn about — moving the youth to the forefront of the teaching work.”