Gift deliveries open doors for spiritual growth and a new kind of community dynamic
On Friday mornings, Baha’i children’s class teachers team up to prepare gift baskets to drop off in northern and southern neighborhoods of Ukiah, California. Thirty children, who regularly participate in the classes, patiently and eagerly wait for the teachers to knock on their doors.
This is part of a creative approach the team devised to continually express genuine care, love, appreciation and commitment to the spiritual education of the children and their families during the pandemic.
Jameelah Dorhosti and Ori Polkinghorne, Baha’is in Ukiah who serve as the teachers, recall how their experience shifted.
“We had been meeting regularly for well over a year on Friday afternoons,” says Polkinghorne. “The outbreak of the coronavirus has significantly changed how we stay connected to the children and their families. Before, a few of our teachers would walk to the usual apartment complexes and gather up the children and walk together to the neighborhood park.”
“During the winter and on rainy days, [a family in the neighborhood] would open their homes for the classes,” adds Dorhosti.
“Now our teachers visit the children’s homes exchanging baskets,” says Polkinghorne.
A class in a small package
Each basket contains materials for the upcoming class: quotes from the Bahá’í writings focused on the importance of developing virtues, a coloring sheet relating to a specific virtue, a story to read, and a snack.
The teachers walk around the neighborhood apartment complex, knocking on doors to deliver the baskets.
“In one complex that has two sections, children and parents see what we are doing and they want to be part of it,” says Dorhosti. After the first few weeks of consistent action, “The children want to help deliver to their neighbors and they want to go with us. They want to see the parents, they want to see the children. They are enthusiastic, God-infused,” she says.
Polkinghorne points out that “the visiting teachers are very careful to follow the guidelines put forth by our county health officer as they pertain to COVID-19 safety.”
Teaming up with parents
Meanwhile, Julie Heath, a Bahá’í who moved to Ukiah in 2019 to assist with community-building efforts there, records a joyful video for the parents to watch with their children and sends it via WhatsApp, Snapchat, or text. In both Spanish and English, she kindly asks the parents to help their children with the weekly lesson, and gives clear instructions to the children, guiding them through the themes and activities provided in the baskets.
To reinforce the lessons and ensure that the profound concepts of the class are not diluted, the team sends follow-up text messages to the parents and visits them twice a week. This has helped strengthen friendships and create opportunities for mutual aid and assistance. It has even led the team to expand its efforts into new neighborhoods.
“The bonds of friendship have only deepened with the families,” says Heath. “They know how much we love them and their children. It is friendship on a deep level that is more like family! We are sharing in each other’s lives during a hard time.
“We always offer our help as well, any help the family might need. It is my belief that this has led to more children participating.”
As Dorhosti has noticed, “The camaraderie among the parents in that group has increased. They know each other through their children, and the children have always been aware of one another or played together, but those connections between the parents have flourished the most because they are [now] involved in the same thing.”
Ella Cash, a 17-year-old Baha’i who assists the children’s class program, reflects on recent challenges that arose the past few months and how the team and families came together to overcome them.
“Two of the children experienced tragedy when their apartment caught fire,” she says. “We prayed together, gathered money together as a community, and it worked! They were able to get a house, God was there with them and it was amazing!” This family’s new neighborhood has also opened their doors and embraced the efforts made by the children’s class teachers to build community.
On top of it all, the pandemic has caused “a lot of isolation and feelings of uncertainty in many homes. Children are starving for contact and connection. So just the little bit that the children’s class can do makes a big difference,” shares Polkinghorne. “It would have been easy, if not expected, that we should shut down during the pandemic.”
Committed to fostering true friendship with the families, they soon “had children from three sections of a complex involved,” says Dorhosti. “One of the children’s class parents became a co-teacher.” A junior youth group has also been formed to empower people ages 12–14 to take an active role in the development of their community.
Goals for the future
Together, the team and families collaborate and converse, to refine their methods and envision goals for future projects. They remain ever conscious of how these past months have made them stronger, more united, and grateful to be learning from each other.
One refinement: to improve sanitation, the children’s class recently started using personal gift bags in place of baskets.
Plans to initiate devotional spaces and study circles with the parents are on the horizon. The team also hopes to assist the parents and children with online homework assignments, organize much-needed physical activity for the children during the week, arrange a pen-pal letter exchange with local high school students, and connect the families with other community resources.
A new understanding of adaptability and a selfless community dynamic has developed as a natural result of this collective progress, the team says.
“You can all come together when there is kindness. … The trust they have in Julie and how nice they are to each other and us, I feel like that should be everywhere, all the time,” says Cash. “What we’ve been working at is not going to stop, it’s going to keep on going, we’re going to keep growing.”