I don't there there was ever a point in my life where I said to myself, "I'm going to be a youth worker" until I was a youth worker. It just basically kind of happened when I started volunteering my time at a drop-in centre for at-risk teenagers when I myself was only 16 years old. As would become my pattern, I stayed with that drop in centre for over 6 years, even as I transitioned into full time mentorship/discipling of teenagers in the same organization's summer camp ministry. After 14 years on staff with the camp, I made yet another transition into my current role as an associate pastor. Here, even though youth is not one of my official responsibilities... well... some things just don't change. The question I ask sometimes however is "how did this happen?"
There are many influences I could write about, specifically many people who have had a profound impact on my life as mentors. Some I still keep up with to this day and some I don't, but their impact has been profound. However, the other night the name of my grade 5 and 6 teacher Mr. D just popped into my head. I was studying an article when the authors name reminded me of Mr. D, and on a whim I typed his name into facebook and actually found him. At that moment I could do nothing but immediately begin writing a message, a message just saying thank you.
I've had more time to consider this over the last few days and I've come to the realization that God used Mr. D to established a foundation for me of how to relate to youth. While the years of 1985-86 get fuzzier as time goes by, there are memories from that class that will stay with me forever.
1. "From the desk of....." At the end (I think) of each school year, Mr. D would give his students each a pen with his name on it... I still have both pens - now just empty shells but still kept safely in my box of memories. While a personalized pen might seem like a very simple trinket, it spoke volumes to me as a pre-teen boy. It felt professional, and it was a reminder that we weren't little kids anymore. It was calling us forward and acknowledging that we were growing up. I think this is a powerful thing to remember for anyone who works with children or teenagers - we can do even the simplest things to recognize potential.
2. Badges. Mr. D had a badge making machine at home and a big book of badge graphics on his desk. On our birthdays, we had the privilege of picking out our favorite graphic, and then the next day Mr. D would bring us our very own badge. My favorite, still at the cottage with the rest of my childhood badge collection, simply states "Warning, I'm naked under my clothing."
The simplest gifts can be the most profound when they are given with care. As students, we knew our teacher cared because he went out of his way to do something for us that even at that young age we knew was beyond expectations.
3. Chess Club. One day Mr. D found a group of us playing checkers with the chess board and pieces. He then patiently taught us to play chess, and when it was evident we were having some fun with it, he started a chess club. It certainly wasn't serious - there were no crazy competitions, and yet he did little things to make it feel professional and awesome. The bottom line was, he gave us his time, and he gave it absolutely unselfishly.
The more I think back, the more things come to mind - but for the sake of finishing this blog and calling it a night I'll stay with those three examples. They are things that have stuck with me, and hopefully even in the smallest of ways I have been able to emulate in my own work with children and youth. You can see however why my first reaction upon finding him on facebook was to say, "thank you."