Growth of junior youth program felt within and far beyond Phoenix

October 31, 2019
Growth of junior youth program felt within and far beyond Phoenix

Bullhead City is an Arizona desert town near the southern tip of Nevada. Sunnyslope is a neighborhood in sprawling Phoenix.

Though they’re 200 miles apart, collaborative action is helping young people and their mentors in both locations draw energy from the overall growth of the Baha’i-initiated junior youth spiritual empowerment program in Phoenix. 

It’s a program that helps middle-schoolers strengthen their capacities through study, conversation, recreation and service projects — and also builds strengths in many of the “animators,” often older youths, who facilitate junior youth groups.  

Traveling and bringing the learning home 

Every two months or so, Bullhead City’s junior youth groups and animators make the long trek to the state capital to engage in community-building activities alongside their big-city peers. 

They’ve similarly joined with other Arizonans at the Bellemont Baha’i School, a conference center outside Flagstaff, and at the Native American Baha’i Institute [NABI] across the state on the Navajo Nation. 

During a training event on the Bellemont Baha’i School grounds near Flagstaff, junior youth group animators with varied levels of experience reflect together on how study and complimentary activities are going. Photo by Ebbie Wirick

Bullhead City is part of a cluster of communities covering an area larger than Maryland with no Baha’i institutions. Emily Ternes, a member of its Baha’i group, says it’s “marvelous” for young people from that small city to spend time “in the midst of the burgeoning spirit” of places where Baha’i activity involves many more people. 

But it can come at a cost for the local community, she adds. “Any weekend the handful of friends initiating the activities [in her area] are gone from our own cluster, there is no one to carry on our core activities [of community building] and we suffer a small setback such that the regularity and the momentum must again be rebuilt. 

“So we must balance the two spheres of action.”

During a training event on the Bellemont Baha’i School grounds near Flagstaff, a junior youth group animator, age 17, accompanies younger people in learning to observe reality attentively. Photo by Ebbie Wirick

Still, says Ternes, the impact of being with more-experienced junior youths and leaders from Phoenix and NABI outweighs the inconvenience for young people and adults alike.

She points to a Bullhead City youth, a graduate of the junior youth program, who had training there and in Phoenix and at NABI then gained community-building experience by offering two months’ service in the Sunnyslope neighborhood.

“One of the activities she attended [in Phoenix] was a family camp,” relates Ternes. In turn, this July she helped organize a family camp in her home city for families of junior youth group participants. As one result, the parents have become “protagonists of the junior youth program and will support the start of our first children’s class” with younger members of their families.

What’s more, the young woman has joined an effort “to try to attract a cadre of youths to go through the sequence of [training] courses to expand the ongoing junior youth program. Friends from the Phoenix Sunnyslope neighborhood hope to join us for a youth outreach” in two neighborhoods, Ternes says. 

Outreach and intensive learning about service 

Meantime, youths in Sunnyslope are starting additional junior youth groups where they live, says Ebbie Wirick, the Four Corners region’s junior youth coordinator.

An intensive summer of service saw about 10 young Sunnyslope residents spend countless hours meeting with neighborhood parents to explain the junior youth program and with neighborhood youths to gauge their interest in arising to mentor junior youths, she says.

A junior youth group in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope neighborhood focuses on study materials that will lead to conversation. Photo by Ebbie Wirick

They punctuated those many weeks of outreach with continued training for their service. Participation in a junior youth camp, which involved members of several groups in Arizona, helped them gain experience as animators.

For some, says Wirick, the amount of time they spent as animators during that camp was equal to that typically spent with a junior youth group during the rest of the year.

In such an intensive atmosphere there’s a need for “constant action, consultation and reflection,” she says. “The animators are hour to hour experimenting, learning and adjusting their approach.”

Just as important, the friendships forged during a camp “are really deep among a team of animators,” says Wirick. Thus when they return to their own clusters of communities, they have a vision of “advancing the program together as a team vs. [conducting] activities that are separate from each other.”

A similar transformation was seen in the junior youth-age campers, she says. Before, some were reticent to share a prayer or sing a song, for example. After a few days, they were “very eager to return to their neighborhood and host a devotional gathering,” one of the other core activities of community building, “or attend a devotional. They just fell in love with it.”

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