Newcomer uses Baha’i-inspired approach to empower Arizona kids

December 13, 2021
Newcomer uses Baha’i-inspired approach to empower Arizona kids

By Layli Miron 

Although Jaron Myers’s story unfolds in the desertscape of central Arizona, it actually starts 1,500 miles away in Minnesota. At 18, Myers was a college student and churchgoer there. But he wasn’t satisfied with his spiritual life, feeling a disconnect between the rituals of religion and the call he felt to serve society.

His church hosted interfaith potlucks, attended by representatives of other religions, including a Baha’i couple. Myers recalls of the husband, “I really liked his point of view in every discussion we had.”  The concept of progressive revelation, a Baha’i belief that God is One and sends a renewed message for each stage of humanity’s development, was particularly attractive to him. “I pretty much fell in love with the Baha’i Faith right away,” he says.

In 2019, his family made the big move from Montevideo, Minnesota, to Prescott, Arizona. Myers continued his investigation of the Baha’i Faith, with the support of his family. He credits his mother, who was raised in a strict Christian denomination, with giving her children space to explore religion independently.

The following year, 2020, changed the lives of billions around the globe as the pandemic surged. For Myers, too, it was a transformative year for spiritual reasons. That summer, he declared his faith in Baha’u’llah, officially joining the Baha’i community. After making that step, “I got involved right away. Everyone was very welcoming, like I was one of the family,” he says.

Myers, who wants to become a physical therapist, is pursuing his education and interning at a clinic. And he spends a lot of time with his family: his mom, two older brothers, and younger sister.

Some might think that balancing studies, work, and family would leave little time for Baha’i service. But for Myers, developing his local community is a top priority. In fact, the Baha’i emphasis on “volunteering time and community involvement” were key in his decision to join the Faith.

Prescott’s junior youth group makes cards to cheer up a friend. Photo by Judy Russell

Myers’s city, Prescott, is the seat of Yavapai County. Linda Smith helps coordinate the various Baha’i activities across the county, which she notes number around forty. She says only two-thirds of participants are enrolled as Baha’is. In fact, in the two junior youth groups, all the participants are from the wider community.

Helping with the junior youth groups was a good fit for Myers, who had a personal reason to get involved. His sister is in her preteen years, and he thought the junior youth spiritual empowerment program would offer her an education in “morals and virtues” that would “serve as a bulwark against an otherwise negative social environment.”

Jaron Myers co-facilitates both of the county’s junior youth groups. One, founded by Linda Smith, is based in the nearby town of Dewey-Humboldt and meets online. The other, founded by Prescott Baha’i Judy Russell, meets in Myers’s apartment complex.

One is based in the nearby town of Dewey-Humboldt and meets online. The other meets in Myers’s apartment complex in Prescott.

Dewey-Humboldt’s junior youth group goes on an outing. Photo by Linda Smith

Myers doesn’t consider himself a “natural” at working with middle schoolers, so he puts a lot of thought into his approach. He reflects, “It all has to start with friendship. The recreational part of the group is really important—to relate to the kids one on one, on their level.” Building a relationship with each one matters greatly, Myers says, because otherwise the facilitator, or “animator,” risks “trying to empower them without knowing their capacities.”

Educational games are one strategy Myers uses to build these friendships. He likes creating “word jumbles” of virtues. “Two weeks ago, we did MERCY (‘YMCRE’). The idea is that they’ll be thinking about the word more as a virtue and better retain it in their mind.”

In junior youth groups, the participants read together from a series of books about young people dealing with ethical issues. Myers’s personal favorite is Walking the Straight Path, which “went over really well with both groups” thanks to its entertaining and enlightening stories.

Instead of reading the books ahead of time, Myers intentionally has his first exposure to them along with the kids, who read aloud during their gatherings. He doesn’t want to come in with a lesson plan, even subconsciously, since the animator should not act like a teacher. “We’re aiming for empowerment,” Myers says, which means the kids need to do the thinking themselves, rather than being “guided to a right answer.”

In the junior youth program, empowerment also means finding opportunities to serve others. Both junior youth groups regularly do service projects, which have included giving flowers to neighbors, making bird feeders, painting and distributing “kindness rocks,” selling homemade drawings and bracelets to raise money for local organizations and creating jigsaw puzzles for hurricane victims.

According to Myers, to empower junior youth, “get involved, give them the tools, and see what they come up with.”

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