Keep It Up: An Anti-List for 2009, part 2

Continued from "Keep It Up: An Anti-List for 2009, part 1."

The end of the calendar year always encourages reflection, particularly in regards to what one wishes to change or improve.  "I resolve to quit smoking," or "I resolve to lose weight" are common goals -- but how often do you hear "I resolve to make life more difficult for the children in my community?"  My latest charge as an after school program site director has been the most challenging, yet the most rewarding responsibility I've ever had, and while the transition definitely defined 2008 as one of the most exciting years of my professional life, I aim to make 2009 the year of change everyone claims it's supposed to be. 

A quick recap: When this school year began in August, I volunteered to fill the vacancy of director at our organization's most challenging site, an after school program facility in a public park.  My previous site had been on the school campus as opposed to adjacent from it, relatively protected from outside elements by the sanctity of the campus, and this new (well, new to me) site was as vulnerable as they come, in a part of town known for gang activity, in a newly developed park attractive to playground-seeking soccer moms and slumbering homeless alike, in conjunction with a demanding school district and its understandably strict grant requirements.  Staff turnover was abundant, and in its eight years the site had seen as many directors come and go.  Who would want to work in a place with such a sullied reputation, with such a high potential for scrutiny and failure?

Four months later, am I kicking myself for being the answer to that hard question?  Quite the opposite.  In my opinion, the greater the challenge means the more fulfilling the smallest of accomplishments, the more reward in even the tiniest of baby steps toward what some would call "normalcy" for an after school program.  I had a plan going into this program, a three-pronged strategy that has already revealed signs of success.  The prongs of plan actually perpetually run concurrently, not in succession but alongside themselves, creating an air of change truly challenging for kids but ultimately friendly to families' needs as a whole.  These are also my new year's resolutions, to continue what I've begun and strive toward the foundation of consistency this site really need:

1.  Establish who rules the program.  Every classroom and child care facility has at least one thing in common: a list of rules, specifically the things children cannot do there.  "No fighting" and "no swearing" are common classroom/child care rules.  I developed a philosophy about this necessary list a long time ago, namely that children should not be told what they can't do but rather should be empowered by what they can do.  "Don't run" can easily be just as effectively communicated with "always walk."  When you eradicate the word "no" from your list of rules, you're one step closer to getting rid of the behavior of no in your children.

Further, child development professionals often differ on the content of established rules, how long the list should be, etc.  Some believe that ambiguity offers wiggle room for unexpected behaviors, while others target specific behaviors as unacceptable, i.e. bullying.  I had a professor once explain that she only had two rules in her second grade classroom: (1.) We are here to learn, and (2.) We are here to help others learn.  She dubbed this very comprehensive; for example, a student talking or passing notes is actually distracting himself from learning, thus breaking rule one.  A student bullying kids on the playground created fear at school, effectively breaking rule two.  She had reserved plenty of wiggle room to attack all negative behaviors.

Over the years I've developed a strategy that combines both schools of thoughts, creating a short, specifically ambiguous list students can follow.  What's "specifically ambiguous" mean?  My rules list targets a desired behavior through reinforcing positive behavior, so, aside from a few other aspects necessary for our program like "sign in" and "bring your membership card," I basically insist on these two standards: "Respect the program, its staff, and its equipment," and, "Respect each other."  Thus, a child running inside runs the risk of knocking something over, disrespecting the program's equipment, and a child playing pool unfairly disrespects his opponent, etc.  Using the word "respect" implies a responsibility for one's actions, a conscience effort to act wisely.  Of course, my last rule is always "have fun," asserting that fun is as important as the safety derived from the other rules.  After all, an involved child is one too occupied to find his own trouble.

Finally, the process through which these rules are established and displayed is just as important as their implementation.  In recent years, I don't actually call this list "the rules" anymore, but rather have titled them, "Who RULES the Program?"  The point is convincing the kids that they can enforce these procedures as much as, if not more than, the staff, since they're usually right there when a rule is broken anyway.  "Hey, don't argue!  That's disrespectful!"  Okay, a kid might not say it like that, but the feeling of empowerment goes a long way on the peer-to-peer level.  Also, I allow the kids in an assembly format to tell me what the rules should be, and I mold their suggestions into my mentally pre-established list.  For instance, a kid might offer, "Keep your hands and feet to yourself," since that rule is an old classroom standard.  I usually thoughtfully reply, "But what if we're playing two-hand touch football?  Why don't we just put 'respect each other,' for times when we shouldn't touch someone."  Sure, that's my rule, but the child's thought is acknowledged, and he can always think he came up with it first.  He rules! 

This short list is transferred from the white board from my assembly to a colorful poster board -- preferably with a cartoon on it, so kids like seeing it, so it blends into the already colorful decor.  If these rules should be a natural part of the children's behavior, the rules poster should be a natural part of the building, neither bland or more flamboyant than the other posters, on par with the image of, say, Michael Jordan making a slam dunk.  The message is that playing sports is right next to playing fairly -- visually, literally.

2.  Meet the child's comprehensive needs.  The most common misconception about my job is that I'm a babysitter.  I haven't "babysat" since I was a teenager, but from I can remember a babysitter comes to your house and watches children play with their own toys, watch their own videos, etc., essentially making sure the children don't kill themselves in the process.  A quality after school program does the exact opposite -- no, we aren't letting kids kill themselves.  The contrast is in the kids coming to us, to our facility, where we have resources families don't have at home.  A pool table, or computers, or crayons, and stuff like that are the first resources that come to mind, but assuming parents are at work after school, the most important resource they appreciate is a staff of responsible adults that can provide the supervision a working mother or father can't from three to six o'clock.  In turn, the staff's passion and ingenuity in cooperation with the program and its facility trump the typical bubble gum-smacking, telephone-hogging babysitter any day.

As my site's eighth director in eight years, you can imagine the skepticism I've faced from the oldest kids and their families -- doubts about my dedication and durability.  I realized from the very beginning that firmness and distance would be key in my efforts to make a comprehensive first impression: firmness in discipline, and distance to establish my position as the leader first.  When we interview staff applicants, we always ask, "Is it more important for you to be liked or respected by the kids, and why?"  Of course, the right answer is a little of both, but a great applicant will note that respect should precede friendship, lest children feel that they have the right to take advantage of you.  "Don't run inside?  Aw, that staff doesn't care -- he's my buddy!" 

Especially in the first few weeks, I put my foot down just as firmly for running in our gamesroom as I did name-calling or bullying, presumably more detrimental behavior, and I didn't hesitate to follow threats of time-out or suspension with statements like, "Start making better choices, kid, because I'm going to be here awhile."  Sure, I came across as a meany, but the proud proclamation was meant to plant seeds of stability.  I wanted kids, especially the most challenging ones, to think, "What if he is here for awhile?  I won't get away with anything again!"   Surely this is a thought they hadn't much considered in the context of high staff turnover.  Interestingly, I had similar conversations with parents, and I could tell that adults had the same reaction!

Further, a language barrier separates me from many of the families, so I've had to depend on my staff to communicate these harsh messages for me.  I made it very clear to them from the beginning that their interpretations shouldn't be in the third person, i.e., "Russ says your child's behavior is unacceptable," because I sound like the enemy.  Discipline, specifically expectations of positive behavior, should be a cooperative effort -- the singular goal any diverse group of youth development professionals shares.  Many parents feel overwhelmed by their child's behavior, and in my experience I've received more thanks for pushing kids toward positive behavior than criticism -- when they understand my intentions.  It is a power trip, but not mine; families should feel empowered by what the after school program has to offer, that their decision to trust us with their children is the right one.

Yet discipline is only one-part of meeting the family's needs.  While I'm putting my foot down, I'm putting a hand out, asking parents what they need and utilizing my organization's resources to help.  Tutoring is the most common need; every parent wants his child to get good grades.  After snack, our homework program is the first thing our members do; the hope is that the sanctity of the classroom still lingers in their minds and that they'll sit quietly for an hour or so despite the pool table or board games just at their fingertips.  It's also indicative of our priorities: homework first.  School first.  My first year as a director, I decided to give the children thirty minutes to "unwind" after school before homework time.  Reeling them in physically and mentally after that taste of recreation was the hardest part of the day, and by then some kids had already been picked up and missed out on the help our tutors offer.  Business before pleasure applies to all stages in life.

Still, many youth organizations specialize in tutoring.  Food for Thanksgiving, toys for Christmas . . . when you work for a nationally recognized youth-oriented non-profit organization, even in the midst of a troubled economy, donations come in regularly around the holidays.  (If only everyone realized that these families are needy the other ten months of the year, too, but I digress.)  Parents certainly titled heads in confusion when the same guy that suspended their son for two days for running inside asked what that boy might want for Christmas, but that was also the moment it clicked.  See, someone out to make a kid's day a living hell wouldn't ask about Christmas, but conversely the intention of help retrospectively explains that firm assertion of authority.  "He's really trying to make things better!"

The next time I suspend that kid, his parents will slap him upside the head.  "Why are you disrespecting the nice man?  He gave you Christmas!"  Speaking of which . . .

3.  Establish and maintain tradition.  My organization takes pride in providing a facility for children to attend and ultimately call a second home.  As after school programs have become more prevalent, thanks to political trends like No Child Left Behind, ASPs have utilized classroom space, which actually ironically creates a greater rift between the school day and the program for a few simple reasons. (Calling NCLB a "trend" is a topic in itself, but, in short, I guarantee that as funding depletes so does the critical attention 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. really deserves.)  First of all, while the point of the program is to give children a safe place to hang out after school, how many kids want to leave school only to return to school?  It creates a philosophical disconnection that encourages student truancy and drop-out from the program. 

Additionally, teachers are notoriously possessive, and rightly so since many things in their classrooms are purchased out of pocket or subject to a limited budget.  So, while having an entire classroom at your disposal might seem like an invaluable resource, most likely teachers demand that the children don't touch anything.  Pencils, books, even board games . . . at arm's reach, but ultimately unavailable.  Try explaining to a student why using the pencil sharpener was okay at 2:59, but not at 3:01!

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about these things, since I have a little facility!  Still, having the building is only half of the battle.  What are you going to do with those four walls?  What will happen there that makes the kids want to come back every day?  In addition to our daily activities, considering the high staff and supervisor turnover, I decided to implement special events and activities that would instill in our families a sense of tradition -- indeed, the spirit of a second home.

Special events don't need a reason to be special, but I like to tie evening activities to the calendar somehow and create the illusion that we're fulfilling parents' needs.  For instance, my staff and I host "Parents Nights Out" from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on various Fridays throughout the year.  While we would definitely get a good turnout if we hosted PNOs once a month, the most successful ones have always been around Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day.  The idea that we're giving parents a fun, safe place to leave their children while they shop or go on a date meets a need and offers something special to their children all at the same time.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, the holidays demand extra attention since they often expose families' greatest needs in contrast to society's expectations of good cheer and gift giving.  In this vein, my organization offers haunted houses at Halloween, a free community-wide Thanksgiving dinner, and last year several toy giveaways -- all under the pretense that we'd like our families to spend the holidays with us.  We emphasize our need for attendance and participation rather than any families' presumed need for food or toys; avoiding insult always opens hardened hearts to charity!

Now, in the past four months, I've facilitated a few site-specific activities like this to see how our corner of the community would take to evening events or such charity.  When I made the transition to the new site, I told my boss that I'd commit three years; in my estimation, that gives me one year to implement what I know from my previous site, one year to adapt to the new demographic, then one year to assure families that what they've seen before is now set in stone, improved for them

Of course, I'm not limiting myself to the three years, but if I do move on then, my successor will have momentum on his side, something I couldn't find in the files of the fellows that came before me.  My message to them would be the same treatise I've been telling myself for the new year.  Don't downplay the importance of discipline, stability, and tradition.  Keep it up.


Confusing Sailboats with Starships

"Children.  The final frontier.  These are the voyages of an after school program . . ."

As a casual Trekkie, I've often compared my tenure as the director of an after school program to that of a starship captain.  While this isn't the twenty-fourth century, and while Orange County certainly isn't outer space (though an argument can be made), the similarities are striking when considering cosmic exploration as an allegory for working with youth.  The most engaging parallel is an appreciation for the unknown; just as Captains Kirk's or Picard's crews encountered various undiscovered alien races or spatial anomalies during their respective missions, so too does an after school program encounter different families, each with their own unique subculture and language, or environmental variables, like Southern California's recent earthquake.  God knows my staff has heard me utter "red alert" when I've had to confront meandering strangers loitering around our program; the potential for danger is often that palpable, as is the need for diplomacy.  In these instances, if "the children" really are our future, the sanctity of the future is literally at stake!  The final frontier, indeed.
Of course, as a geek, I tend to take such analogies way too far. Unlike other after school programs, my organization places an emphasis on the facility as a proverbial second home for the community’s most needy youth, so, if I’m my program’s captain, this facility must be the ship itself! Here’s where I go way too far, likening the facility’s core program areas to the essential departments on a starship like the U.S.S. Enterprise: first, of course, is our Gamesroom, which is our members’ and guests’ first impression of the program, and where first contact, and most of the action, takes place . . . just like a starship bridge. Our front counter, where parents are greeted and children are supervised, must always be manned like the bridge, lest the stability and direction of our daily activities face compromise. Further, if my program is short-staffed on any given day, activities from other program areas can be “rerouted” to the spacious Gamesroom to consolidate the kids and assure that all functions proceed as usual. Oh, yes. And I’m just getting started.
While one may be tempted to liken our Computer Lab to the Engineering room, I’m more inclined to assign that symbolism to the Learning Center, where a majority of our more academic activities take place. Like Scotty or Georgi La Forge in Engineering, children in the Learning Center generally develop and practice problem solving skills while (gasp) learning about the ways the universe works. The Computer Lab is more akin to the holodeck (sorry, Original Series fans), where children can be virtually transported to anywhere in the world via the Internet -- looking up facts for homework assignments about Egypt or conversing with fellow kids in Kansas via our highly monitored chat channels. Technology brings the world to children that otherwise might never leave their square mile of their neighborhood . . . as a holodeck does for a confined starship crew. Finally, I’ve saved the biggest stretch for the Arts & Crafts Room, which I liken to Sick Bay. Giving children the opportunity to express themselves is the most cathartic activity an after school program can facilitate. It ails the raging bully and his meek victim alike. Though the day my arts staff says, “Damn it, I’m an Arts & Crafts Coordinator, not a doctor,” is the day I’ll happily resign. My work will be done.
But, really, I digress. My inspiration for fully exploring this analogy, and for posting in this blog after a year’s time, is my latest commission -- an after school program site that has been proverbially battle-damaged and left for scrap. Oh, the site is still a part of our fleet, but it’s quadrant in our community is a bit less hospitable than I’m used to. That’s why I asked for the assignment. I had happily piloted my previous program for six years, and I’m very proud of my tenure; in fact, for the first time in my life, I’m actually very happy to see something end, knowing that I gave it my all and that my efforts are evident and appreciated. Yes, my the position opened, I seriously considered and practically jumped on the opportunity, not so much to save any sinking ships, but to test my mettle as a leader in the first place. It’s easy to ride the wind when your sail finds the breeze, but it’s much more rewarding to have to row yourself for awhile, too, and get there by your own power. Not to confuse sailboats with starships . . .
But the comparison stands. This program I’ve adopted has had seven directors in as many years, which is devastating to any group of children, let alone the kids from this wayward side of the tracks. The inconsistent discipline has resulted in a highly damaged facility, including broken wall slats, electrical outlets, furniture, and ceiling tiles. I’m telling you, if it were a starship, its bridge would be the dark, sparking mess the Enterprise crew often found aboard a war-ravaged vessel. (I’m thinking the Enterprise-C from “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” What??) Oh, this site isn’t without its casualties, either, as only two of the program’s original six staff have survived the transition, which does put me in the fortunate position of recruiting my own crew. Considering this bold new direction I plan to undergo, fresh-faced cadets are always best, anyway. Their naïve optimism paves the way for experimentation, which, at this point, couldn’t hurt. What else is any analogy of the future except the exploitation of new ideas?
While I’ve begun a hand-written “captain’s log” detailed the minutia of my day-to-day interactions, this blog will help me understand the big picture in more ambiguous (i.e. confidential) terms. Consider that phrase, “bold new direction,” I said. Interestingly, this new direction is really just my rickety old ship’s original course -- a continuing mission to inspire young people to realize their complete potential. Somewhere between the politics of our roles and the challenges of this community, this purpose was lost entirely. Yes, working with kids presents as many unknowns as what tomorrow may bring, and while folks often fear this, I embrace it. Like Earth’s earliest explorers braving the raging seas, or fiction’s starship captains staring down the phaser barrels of an unknown alien race, I’m excited to temper these self-hardened young people, and to help them embrace a future as promising as the one I’ve watched on television. I’m excited to boldly go where no one has been willing to take them before. 

Dear Former Employees

Dear Former Employees,

One of you had to quit.  The other one had to be fired.  You know who you are.

Working with children is one of the most conversely challenging and rewarding jobs someone can ever have.  In fact, "working with children" is a misnomer; we are in fact working for them.  Our responsibility to ensure a fun, safe environment guarantees a memorable experience, but it also carries a weight that very few people have the compassion to endure.  We aren't always prepared to put the needs of others, especially needy others like children, before our own, and sometimes our spirits buckle under the pressure.  If your body isn't built to carry the burden, or requires time to recuperate from the unexpected strain, I understand the need for a personal respite.  If your heart cannot bear the responsibility of putting a youth-oriented organization's integrity before your short term whims, I also understand the need for professional reprimand.  Again, you know who you are.

I can only hope that your tenure under my supervision was both personally and professionally fulfilling.  Just as you had a respective nine weeks or nine months to make a difference in a child's life (and I know both of you have), I had nine weeks or nine months to make a difference in your lives.  I hope you learned something about your potential as an employee and a role model.  I hope you learned something about the sanctity of youth in our tumultuous world.  Finally, I hope you learned something about the way the world works -- that, no matter how fun, flexible, or frivolous working for a non-profit organization can be, it also ironically introduces us to the darker side of life.  In short, working for children is as introspectively and cosmically unpredictable as the children themselves.  If you choose, you can be a better person for it.

Whatever your future holds, I wish you good luck and fortune.  For one of you, my door and my heart are always open to welcome you back, in any capacity.  For the other, I wonder if you even wish they were.


Your Former Boss

Forget the Pen, Grab the Sword

I wonder how he felt, bringing a knife to school. Most folks would ask why, but working with kids for as long as I have, I’m confident that even he doesn’t know why. He’d concoct some elaborate, dramatic story about the gang that was going to jump him, sure, but he’s smart enough to know of the other options at his disposal. Heck, if he sought “street justice,” the guys on my Staff have enough experience from their youth to stand up for him in a more . . . colloquial manner. He knows that, too. So, when he decided to take matters into his own hands and put that knife in his backpack and flaunted it at school that day, just prior to getting expelled, I wonder how he felt.
I bet he felt powerful, like he had an advantage over all of the kids around him. Yeah, they talk tough, they dress gangster, but he had a knife, a real man’s weapon, the kind that gets your hands dirty if you have to use it. Guns are standard but detached; anybody can fire a gun from a safe distance away and remain anonymous – starting the chaos yet unable to perpetuate it. A knife gets involved and shows everybody who’s responsible. Further, while a punch simply strikes the surface, a knife gets inside. It makes an impression . . . and that’s all most kids his age want. To know that they made an impression.
Unfortunately, he preferred that negative attention, and for that we know why. A positive impression is closed-ended, merely punctuated by praise, then plateaued with the assurance that “that kid’s one of the good ones.” A negative impression requires corrective teaching and evaluation. That’s an open-ended process with the guarantee of revalidation. Further, since negative attention is more controversial, it’s more susceptible to peers’ rumor and speculation. You become the topic of conversation. He remembers that classmate that went to jail and veritable wonder in everybody’s voice when they talked about him. Who wouldn’t want that kind of fame? After all, kids aren’t hanging up pictures of Mother Theresa in their lockers now, are they?
The thing about this kid is, just a few days before he put that knife in his backpack, I had a serious conversation with his about his behavior. As an older member of our program, I’ve explained his position as a leader, and he’s expressed an interest in living up to that potential. A stupid mistake on his part inspired our talk, but a coworker and I assured him of his progress, revealed a hint of disappointment but also our overwhelming pride. I thought we had equipped him for success
That’s why I wonder, how did he feel when he hid that knife in his backpack? Did he feel like we had lied to him? Or, if he took our words sincerely, did he feel convicted between our conversation and another he had with some other adult? Did he aim to prove us wrong, or prove some other adult right, by being that kind of kid? Maybe he was genuinely afraid that some gang was going to beat him up, and he could comprehend no other defense than a weapon. I could almost understand that . . . but I don’t comprehend the feeling of power. If anything, I think he felt powerless. Gripping that knife and showing it off to his friends, one of whom would rat him out and get him expelled, was the closest he felt to having a handle on life.
He’s learning now, it’s a double-edged sword.

90 Kids and a Little Anxiety

How do you prepare someone for a room full of ninety kids, each eager and excited in his or her own way to know and depend on you?  Five years and several employees deep into my management of an after school program, I still haven't figured that one out.  When I got the job, first as a floor staff facilitating programs, now as a director facilitating those staff, I was essentially thrust into the role with little training or experience.  Since then, I've vowed never to put someone else in a similar position, but conversely, I don't want to deny anyone the opportunity to develop an approach all their own -- as that's what seemed to work for me.  So, yesterday, when I welcomed a new addition to my staff, I tried my best to balance disclosure and ambiguity, to assure that she was equally equipped yet overwhelmed, so that her response would be an emotionally honest one tempered with the assurance that she has a supervisor willing to help.  Heck, in many ways, I'm still unprepared for those ninety kids every day.  Who knows what challenges such a diverse group of young people will present?  The day my staff feels too comfortable, I've failed.

The Cult of the Blessed Brat

While working with children presents many challenges, I dare say that no aspect of the profession presents more of a challenge than communicating with parents, particularly the parents of challenging children.  I'm not referring to the parents that know or understand what their child is capable of; the Mitchells, for example, knew that Dennis was a menace, and they rarely questioned Mr. Wilson's enraged accusations.  No, I'm talking about those parents that refuse to believe that their children are capable of making bad decisions, or further demonstrating offensive or disrespectful behavior.  I've decided that these parents are best described as members of a cult, namely, The Cult of the Blessed Brat.  Like a missionary or a minister that has tried to convert a member of a cult, I have talked to these parents, presented them with documented evidence of their child's negative behavior, only to have them refuse their child's blame.  "He doesn't do that at home, so someone made him do it here," they insist, or worse, "My child has a disability, and he cannot understand the difference between right and wrong.  We all just have to live with his bad behavior.  Nothing we can do."  I've heard it all, and while the latter response seems indicative of hopelessness, I insist that parents use it to remain hopeful, hopeful that their kid's misbehavior is a result of genetics rather than negligent parenting.  They're effectively brainwashed to believe that their child is either incapable of wrongdoing, either tangibly or mentally.

I don't have a solution to this problem; just as every cult presents its own enculturization, so do individual families.  However, I did research the characteristics of a cult member to test my theory; knowing is half the battle, after all.  Consider this checklist of a cult member's characteristics and determine if any parents you know exhibit these behaviors.  Replace "the group" with "the parents," and "the leader" with "their child," and you might be surprised.

[Source: The following text was posted and is presumably owned by the International Cultic Studies Organization at]

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

The group is preoccupied with making money.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

The Best Laid Plans

Working for a nationwide non-profit organization has had its perks, particularly in regards to my attending special events that otherwise I would never had known about.  You see, from time to time, media conglomerates like to "support" our organization, promoting our humanitarian mission, but more importantly, promoting their support of our  humanitarian mission, if you know what I mean.  I can't complain.  Any publicity is good publicity, even the shameless patting-ourselves-on-the-back kind.  

Sometimes, however, these efforts are too concept-centric, with little planning or forethought to assure that they are actually implemented properly.  For example, a few years ago, a certain basic cable network that targets a younger audience, and rhymes with Pickelodeon, decided to launch a campaign that encourages a holiday that celebrates play.  In fact, on this day in past years, the network has actually gone off the air to encourage kids to go outside (although with so many cable networks dedicated to kids nowadays, I'm sure most of the little brats just changed the channel).  Anyway, to celebrate their "day of play," this network invited organizations like mine to a live taping of special dedicated to the event, hosted by Hilary Duff (pre-twig legs) and Li'l Romeo.  I escorted an excited group of girls to the studios on Sunset Blvd. that day, where we met thousands of other excited girls, and where we sat for hours while the pre-production crew situated their equipment.  When Duff and Romeo finally appeared, their interaction with the eager young crowd was minimal.  A few volunteers were pulled to participate in some poorly organized games, but for a day dedicated to being active, we sure did sit around a lot.  I wasn't happy with the experience.

This past weekend, a similar opportunity arose with a competing network that, dare I hint, has its ears on the ground for trends in youth culture.  The event was held at the Santa Monica pier, which unlike the studios on Sunset, doesn't offer an enclosed, secure environment for kids.  I had my doubts about the event's success.  However, shortly after we unloaded the bus, an escort met us to describe the afternoon's schedule, which included a free lunch, so you can imagine that I was immediately relieved, at least in the filling-my-belly department.  A radio DJ kept the kids entertained after they ate, playing music that I'm sure kids like and encouraging them to dance and exert their energy, which in turn assured chaperones like me a quiet (sans snoring) ride home.  After an hour's wait, the main attraction hit the stage: Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter, better known to the screaming kids as Hannah Montana.  They sang a few duets together and were gone as quickly as they appeared, but their interaction with the audience made up for the hastiness of their appearance.  After the concert, attendees were encouraged to hit the pier's carnival rides, but since the pier wasn't closed to the public, literally thousands of people collided, so we passed the time before departure eating ice cream and enjoying the ocean breeze.  

Now, as I may have described before, every field trip has a turning point, a moment where you can sense that kids are done and ready to go home.  This field trip fortunately ended right at that moment, so that on the bus, the vibe was one of mutual reflection of an awesome experience.  That's an event intended for kids.  My kudos to the responsible parties for making it happen, including Pizza Hut, Circuit City, and Wal-Mart.  These corporations may have patted themselves on the back, but they did so by putting a hand out.  I have nothing but good things to say about the afternoon, and everybody knows that word of mouth is the best publicity of all.

In the Field...Trip

A few years ago, I was a chaperone for a group of twelve kids on a field trip to Universal Studios in Hollywood.  Because Universal is my favorite theme park, I was excited to share it with, and experience it through the eyes of, these children that had never been there before.  As soon as we arrived, I spent a minute engaging the kids with the park's map, determining which rides, shows, and attractions we would visit in our short six hour afternoon.  After a successful general consensus, I planned the day in my head, and thanks to my knowledge of the park, we effectively squeezed in everything the kids wanted to do with a solid fifteen minutes to spare before departure time.  I had a backpack full of odd little accessories my frantic mind thought we might need, and I actually used some of the trinkets to ensure that we had a totally worry-free day.  For example, one of the kids purchased a bag of popcorn, couldn't finish it in time for our ride, and was upset at the thought of having to throw away the expensive treat.  I used a rubber band to seal the bag so he could hold onto it until the ride was over, and he was overwhelmingly grateful.  Man, I felt like the chaperones of chaperones.

So, with our fifteen minutes to spare, I thought we could experience one more attraction, the one closest to the exit: the Mummy's haunted tomb.  The kids were confident that they could bear the fright, and they looped all of their arms in mine just to make sure.  Two minutes into the tomb, one of the children apparently couldn't take it anymore, so he disconnected himself from me and ran back out of the entrance!  With the weight of the other eleven kids pulling me forward, I had to forsake the one to tend the rest of the flock!  Mummies and zombies lurched toward us throughout the tomb, but I gotta tell you, the scariest part of the attraction was my wondering what could have happened to the kid that split.  We finally made it outside, and the boy was nowhere to be found.  I quickly escorted my group to our bus, where a co-worker could keep an eye while them while I searched for my scared little needle in a haystack.

Have you ever seen a group of brightly dressed kids at a theme park?  Those shirts can stop traffic for a reason.  At that time, our shirts were yellow, and since the park was closing, I was wandering against the flow, completely oblivious to any other color of the spectrum.  I found him, on the steps of the tomb, by now composed and simply waiting for me.  I embraced him and carried him to the bus.  Our relief was mutual.

I share this story to illustrate the dichotomy of "the field trip."  As a chaperone, you're responsible for potentially dozens of the little lives in an environment you cannot completely control, i.e. the real world.  As a human being, you just want to have fun.  The two goals achieve a balance if they're accomplished in harmony; if you offer an experience that is fun for all, maintaining a child's attention and safety will come naturally.  Prior to the Mummy's tomb, the kids and I were having a great time together; they recognized that my primary concern was their ultimate exposure to everything Universal had to offer.  When I deviated from my plan and took that last minute gamble, it all hit the fan.  We should have simply bailed out fifteen minutes early, or even went shopping until departure time.  The Mummy's tomb is something else now, but that lesson learned will last a lifetime.

Where else other than the field trip can someone be at work without really being at work?

Family Reunion

Children are fluid creatures.  They come, they grow, they go, usually sooner than even they would like.  My program serves children up to twelve years old, or from first through sixth grade.  Other, more age-appropriate programs exist for junior high students.  Yet, every now and then, a window of opportunity opens for some of our "alumni" to return for a time.  Summer is such an opportunity.

A few weeks ago, an eighth grader that had attended our program for years returned for the summer, and her father was very happy we'd have her.  A day or two into her return, he commented, "You know, I was pulled up in the parking lot, and I realized I miss the old days."  The next morning, when his daughter was laughing and playing with her reacquainted friends, I realized I did, too.

I'm too young to feel like a father whose children are coming home, but when we get these glimpses into the past, when these children shed a few years to remember us and what we offer them, I can't help it.  When you watch a child grow for so many years, you're family.  That's what Dad said without saying it.  That's what I feel without helping it.  The true measure of a good program like ours isn't if they come, but if they come back.