Archives for posts with tag: service

What does it mean to be an animator-

  • Be a true friend to those who are younger. Junior youth, or those who are between the ages of 11 and 14, are at an age where they rely on their friends. When they experience friendship that isn’t rooted in superficial interests or appearances, they thrive.
  • Provide an example of positive growth. Since you are just a bit older than the junior youth–not so old that they can’t relate to you, but not quite so young as to be a peer–they will look to you to see what kind of person they could become in just a few years.
  • See potential in all its forms. Society offers us a vision of junior youth that isn’t necessarily accurate. Looking at adolescents and seeing their capacity for kindness, for creativity, and for service to others helps them to see themselves not as a problem to be fixed, but as protagonists and agents of change.
  • Unite youth, families, an communities. A junior youth group doesn’t only affect participants, it draws in everyone around it. Through service, visits, and consultation, the presence of a strong junior youth program can actually transform the surrounding culture.

Interested in becoming a junior youth animator? Learn more about the training institute or contact the Baha’i community nearest you.


While I’ve been following the current ebola outbreak for quite a while now (my job requires me to visit the CDC website on an almost daily basis, so it’s constantly in my face), it’s only recently that I’ve seen Americans without ties to west or central Africa becoming actively afraid of the disease. And where fear goes, exploitation follows. Scammers are selling all kinds of products to “protect your family against ebola,” from essential oils to magical water to expensive dietary supplements. Never mind that the best way to avoid contracting ebola is to avoid coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has ebola—not terribly difficult to manage here in the US.

But people quite naturally want to do something when horror strikes. As such, here’s my list of suggestions of things you can do, as an average person outside of an area where ebola is endemic, to help the situation.

1. Support science education of children, youth, and adults.

If we as a people do not understand science, we will not produce scientists. We will not be able to develop cures and methods of prevention. We will be easy prey for scams. We will not know where to donate money or time or energy in order to be of service. Supporting science education might mean tutoring a neighborhood youth. It might mean pitching in for science supplies for a local cash-strapped teacher. It might mean organizing a workshop at your local library, or calling your state legislators. It might even mean logging on to Khan Academy and educating yourself. Choose the path that makes the most sense for you.

2. Demonstrate and teach compassion.

Nothing gets better when nobody cares. (And caring is different from fear.) Does picking up litter in your neighborhood on your daily walk really have any effect on something like ebola halfway across the world? Not directly. But in a world where editorials make sarcastic cracks at those who dedicate their lives to curing disease and alleviating suffering, any attempt to eliminate cynicism is a step that brings us closer to being able to act in unity with our fellow human beings.

Vickery Meadow neighborhood cleanup

3. If it’s not about you, remember that.

If you live anywhere near a decently-sized city, there are people in your area who are affected by this crisis. You have neighbors or coworkers who are from central and west Africa, who have family there, who are worried sick in ways that probably don’t apply to you. A visit, some baked goods, a word of understanding can go a long way. Listen. Listen well, and do it more than you speak. Share the burden of those who are suffering, rather than adding a burden of your own.

4. Live in a learning mode.

Medicine is a tricky practice. It involves some science, some art, and a sizable chunk of engineering all thrown together. It requires a process of study, action, and reflection that doesn’t always run perfectly on an individual level, much less on a global scale. But when we allow ourselves to internalize this learning cycle, we stop being defensive about past mistakes, and instead upgrade our knowledge and habits without shame. While most of us aren’t going to develop a cure for ebola, we can bring to a halt the spread of misinformation, even misinformation we ourselves had a hand in promoting. We can encourage habits of creative thought and concerted action that might lead to a new scientific breakthrough, or just a better experience for the families on our street.

I know that these aren’t the kinds of advice most people are looking for. They don’t particularly alleviate fear. They aren’t direct. They aren’t immediate. They’re not simple. And they’re definitely not glamorous. But when we finally conquer this outbreak, there will be another crisis to capture our attention. Perhaps another virus. Or a war. Or a hurricane. Or a messenger from outer space—who knows? We can’t possibly hope to preemptively develop exactly what is needed to handle every possible contingency. But in all of these cases, there is a shared truth: that the best preparation is a community of people who strive towards acquiring and applying knowledge for the betterment of all.

If you want to make a difference, start there.

walking the path

A few reflections on walking a path of service, a theme that ran through the 10 day intensive youth training campaign I helped facilitate over the last two weeks.

It’s a path, not a road. It is built by the people who walk it. It is being built by you, now, for as long as you walk it, until you stand still. And even then it is shaped by your stillness, your feet sinking into the mud and leaving the imprint of where you stopped to catch your breath and look forward and behind.

But it’s still a path. It’s not only for you. Hiding the way so that you can show how singularly unique you are does not make you a pioneer, it makes you an egotist. The one less travelled by may very well be the better choice, but it is because of the challenge of the journey and the gorgeous views from the top of the mountain, not simply by virtue of being less walked.

Some walk at different paces. Smile and accommodate them. Step to the side for the quick ones, excuse yourself to the slow ones. Touch hands and walk alongside someone for a while, then separate when your legs beg you to stretch them out and give them a really good run.

It’s not criminal to step off the path, but it will certainly expend more energy and slow you down. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s not. How important is the direction you’re headed?

When in doubt, move forward. Quit assembling maps and equipment and go. Leave your shoes if you can’t find them. There is someone else on the path who will help you if you need it. But they’re not waiting for you. Walk out and let your feet find a place they can move as they were meant to, with joy, one in front of the other.

You’re not the first person to set out on a life of service. But your service matters just the same.

photo credit: Skinnyde via photopin cc

This is a bit older. I wrote it in 2008 while living in Malawi (and clearly reading too much Rumi), but the feeling is as fresh now as it ever was then. Maybe more.

The Second Way

There is a way
to look at the crisis,
and not cry. To see injustice,
famine, the virus of the blood, and yet stand
straight enough to speak
is difficult, but not impossible: forget your glasses.
Bring instead your weak
myopia, your astigmatic haze,
dulling the vistas of hopelessness until
there is only your nose and one pot of maize,
one school fee, one welcome song, one child
wailing in your arms. This way,
survive, and serve again.

There is only one way
to look at the crisis,
and not cry.

But if you would cry, get up!
Walk out of that body, prostrated
and voiceless in its shame. Baptize
yourself in its tears and turn your back.
When you see the fires of impossible hope,
jump in! Blaze. Immolate fear in the coals
of your joy. This is the second way.
Then watch: these sparks,
they are heating a nation,
they are lighting the world.

Everywhere I go, a path of service has already been prepared for me. Junior youth empowerment is a process that is evolving in every corner of the world.

Junior Youth Group

11- to 14-year-olds have many of the same needs everywhere. The need for a safe environment. The need to explore their identities and their dreams. The need for an encouraging voice and a listening ear. This is true for everyone, whether born in a swanky American suburb or a refugee camp in Nepal.

Junior Youth Group

Everywhere there is this tension between wanting to play like children, and wanting to be heard like adults. Luckily, there’s plenty of space for both.

Junior Youth Group

All photos taken by Kat, who is clearly not a photographer.

brazil junior youth group

A junior youth group in Portal da Gloria, Brazil plants a flower garden.

It occurs to me that, despite how much I talk about being a junior youth animator, I’ve never really explained what the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program is all about. Not in a concise way, anyhow.

Junior Youth

A junior youth is someone between the ages of 11 and 14. In some places the “junior youth” designation starts at age 12, but here people start middle school at 11 and move on to high school at 14, so it’s a really logical social group. Junior youth is that time in between childhood and youth when we become more independent, start to look critically at the world around us, think more abstractly, ask big questions about the nature of things, and feel an awful lot like an adult, even if we don’t always act like one. Heck, we even start to look more like adults, too. Growth spurts and hormonal changes are a part of this time period too, for better or worse.


The qualities of the human spirit: courage, compassion, truthfulness, trustworthiness, love. Many people (junior youth, as well as those younger and older than them) navigate their spirit through the medium of religion or faith. Many people do not. So while religion inevitably comes up in conversation (and if you think junior youth aren’t interested in discussing religion, think again), it’s from a perspective of sharing and inquiry rather than proselytizing or catechism. The goal is to deepen the spirit: for the Muslim youth to be excellent Muslims, the Christian youth to be excellent Christians, the Baha’i youth to be excellent Baha’is, and the humanist youth to be excellent humanists. For those young people that are exploring religion in the hopes of choosing one to follow, the goal is for them to do so from a place of understanding and respect. Don’t forget, curiosity and creativity are also qualities of the spirit.


Empowerment means “to endow with power.” When junior youth work to make positive changes in themselves, it endows them with the power to change their communities. When junior youth serve the community in increasingly complex ways, it endows them with the power to change themselves for the better. Youth already have amazing capacities inside them: physical capacities for athletics and dance, mental capacities for critical and creative thinking, spiritual capacities for kindness and justice, and other uniquely human capacities for things like verbal communication and artistic expression. To empower junior youth doesn’t mean stuffing them full of power they don’t yet have, it means drawing out the capacities that are already latent within them and bringing them to fruition.


While each junior youth group develops organically, there is a basic framework for the program. There are study materials that encourage discussion. Service to others is a major component, whatever form that may take. Artistic, athletic, and social activities are also important; forming strong friendships rooted in mutual respect is vital at this age.

All these things grow as the youth do. In the beginning, they read simple stories. While the topics may be profound, the depth of the conversation may or may not be. This isn’t problematic, it’s just a natural result of being 11. Service projects may be simple, like visiting the sick, reading books to young children, or cleaning up litter in a neighborhood.

After three years, the youth are reading stories at an adult level. Not only are their services to the community more long-term and complex (like holding a regular class for children or maintaining a vegetable garden for local hungry families), but they have taken on most of the responsibilities themselves. They call organizations to arrange a meeting or businesses for in-kind donations. They plan the lessons they’ll teach. They write the public talks they’ll give. (And arrange the venue. And write to the local paper about it.)

Does this seem like a lot to ask of a 14-year-old? Of course it is. But 14-year-old gymnasts with three years of training under their belts can do backflips. Imagine the citizens that 14-year-olds with three years of systematic empowerment behind them could be.

So what happens after?

Obviously, we don’t just ditch these youth on their 15th birthday. What happens next depends on the paths of service that each youth chooses to take, but many take all these skills for consultation, service, reflection, and community-building, and decide to become trained to animate their own junior youth groups. At around 16 (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), often with the assistance of an experienced mentor, they become that older sibling to a group of 11-year-olds who are just entering adolescence.

So when you hear me talking about my junior youth groups, this is what I mean.

It’s a process of empowering young people ages 11-14 to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. It’s frustrating to be told that your entire life is a time of preparation for eventual adulthood. The best way to prepare for a life of service is to start making a difference now.

Photo used with the permission of the Baha’i World Center.

letter c

Coherence literally means the quality of sticking together. When someone’s speech is incoherent, the words don’t fit with one another in any sensible way. In a coherent plan, all the parts fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Nothing can be coherent in isolation. There’s nothing to stick to.

A junior youth group on its own is nice. It can have tangential effects on the rest of the neighborhood. It’s a good start. But just as it takes a village to raise a child, it also take a village to raise, well, a village. And if the junior youth group never talks to the Block Watch, which never talks to the local business owners, who never talk to the neighborhood children that ride their bikes up and down the street … nice is all that’s likely to be accomplished by any of their actions.

At the same time, coherence doesn’t mean diffusing your focus so much that you help no one. Start with small actions, but avoid small thinking. Because the ultimate goal isn’t “nice,” it’s change. And for that to happen, we all have to find new ways to stick together.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

aids ribbon

Today is World AIDS Day.

When I was in high school, I was one of only two members of the AIDS Awareness Club. The two of us were also in the Drama Club together, and on the editorial team for our school’s literary magazine, and best friends besides. Because of this, everyone decided we were a lesbian couple. Not sure how lesbianism follows AIDS, as they’re the least likely group to contract HIV, but that’s high school for you.

In college, I became an HIV Prevention Peer Educator. Basically, I taught sex ed to college students. As a student who wasn’t having sex, this was a particularly hilarious position. (Someone once called me the Virgin Sex Goddess. Best nickname ever.) My teaching partner was known for being a bit promiscuous, and he and I made a great team. Once a student complained that her boyfriend refused to wear condoms. I asked her why she’d waste her time on a guy who didn’t respect her health. My partner showed her how to put a condom on another person with her mouth. His method was probably more effective.

For my biology class, I decided to research the specific ways various HIV drugs worked on the cellular level. I spent a lot of time talking to the only other kid in the class who was really passionate about his project. (It was about mushroom farming, which is very cool.) Nobody else knew what to do with us.

When I lived in Malawi, around 15% of the population was HIV+. In the afternoons I’d sometimes walk to a nearby orphanage and play with the babies there. Some of them had not been tested yet. Some had. It was surreal, realizing how differently the futures of those babies would go, all based on one tiny virus.

In massage school, I completed my internship at a local nonprofit, working with HIV+ clients (and sometimes their stressed-out social workers). I was amazed at the diversity I saw. For some, being HIV+ was their entire identity. When they said “we,” they didn’t mean people in general, or the two of us, or even gay men. They meant people carrying the virus. But others nearly exploded over with the joy of being alive. I couldn’t dream of being so healthy, or living so fully.

Now, I work in a tiny, not-for-profit clinic where around 1/3 of our clients have HIV. I’m lucky to understand the side effects of their medications (peripheral neuropathy is particularly unpleasant) and to have enough knowledge to be sensible, compassionate, and unafraid.

I when I was 16 and hanging posters in my school’s hallways, I didn’t know I was building a career. I just knew that I was a teen who cared, and that care followed me around for a decade until I found a place for it in my professional life. If you’d asked me then what I would do when I grew up, I couldn’t have predicted any of it, and the question wouldn’t have helped me at all. But if you asked me, “What will matter to you?” I’d have given you a short, decisive list. It’s the same list now.

Maybe that’s a better way to prepare young people for the world they will inherit. Build the skills around caring, rather than trying to convince people that they ought to care more about their skills.

photo credit: Mister F. via photopin cc

Sometimes, it’s hard to reach out. You feel like you have no good excuse to ask someone to join you for tea or service or prayers.

But if you ever needed an excuse to ask, you’ve got it now.

  • Pray for healing after the hurricane.
  • Pray for love and unity to prevail during (and following) the election season.
  • Pray for peace in an unstable world.
  • Pray for students who are preparing for midterm exams.
  • Pray for the souls of those who’ve left us this year.
  • Pray in thanksgiving for all that we have.

It’s not a gimmick. It’s not a “theme.” (God, I can’t stand gathering with themes.) It’s a need.

Prayer engenders clarity, compassion, and a spirit of sacrifice. And from these things a path of service emerges from the fog.

So if you’re a person who prays, find an excuse to pray with others this week or this month. Then take those prayers, walk out your door, and work to make them come true.

“Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!”

I’ve worked with kids and youth since I was a teenager. Little kids. Big kids. Teens. Rich and poor. Reluctant and voracious readers. All colors. All attitudes.

But they all love to serve.

Some really get into hard physical labor. Digging old bricks and rocks out of stubborn soil and hauling them across the lot into a pile was a heavenly experience for one group of middle schoolers. Others get a kick out of performing, as the Empowered Souls showed when they shared their musical gifts with residents at a local nursing home last month. Some like to cook. Some enjoy the stark before-and-after of a neighborhood cleanup. I’ve got shy kids who like to make gifts and deliver them anonymously, and gregarious ones who like to talk with others and hear their life story. 20-month-old toddlers love to set the table for their friends and wipe it down with a damp towel after the meal. We all serve.

So why do we run under the assumption that greed is the baseline for all human affairs?

Sure, selfishness might be natural. Babies are inherently self-centered, and there’s no moral judgment involved in that statement. Learning to understand that there is a world outside of yourself is a skill, and one that takes time. But if selfishness is inherent, so is compassion. See one toddler bringing their favorite toy to another child who is in tears, in order to comfort her. Altruism and ego exist in all of us. So why assume we have to cater to the latter?

Service gives meaning to skills. But the meaning must come before the learning, not afterwards. Nobody wants to put forth effort in a vacuum.

Instead of starting with book learning, why not start with service, and then proceed? Put meaning in its proper place, at the center of life.

It might feel awkward at first, going into service with little theory under our belts. But it’s probably less awkward than attempting to shift into action when the meaning until then has existed only in the mind.