Teen Lifeline started over seven years ago at an alternative school in Birdville ISD. Since then, we have expanded into eight different school districts in Tarrant and Wise counties, covering a wide variety of school settings. Each district and individual campus has a distinct “feel” to it based upon the teachers and students involved. And as the districts get bigger and bigger, so does the breadth and diversity of their campuses.
As we grow into new districts and schools, we have to ask ourselves the question – “Do Teen Lifeline groups work with students in ________ school?” In other words, can a life skill curriculum and support group process reach across all ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural lines?
While this might be a clumsy question, you get the idea. When we go into a school with students and teachers from neighborhoods or cultural backgrounds much different than my own, am I being effective? Will I be accepted?
These questions were bouncing through my brain as I walked in the International Leadership Academy (INA) of Fort Worth ISD last week. INA is an immersion campus of sorts working with students of immigrant and refugee families in Fort Worth. Many students come from war-torn areas of the world or are children of immigrants seeking citizenship in our country. Most students speak very little english and many students have experienced some kind of trauma. With the frustration of language barriers and unmet needs from the stresses of being in a new country, you can imagine how much support these students need.
When I showed up at the front office on Friday, I had students from Mexico, Columbia, Nepal, Uganda, and Burma meet me for group. These middle school students spoke very little english and when they arrived, they thought they might be in trouble.
As we walked down to the group room I wondered, “How in the world am I supposed to do a group with these students? What would I have to offer students who couldn’t understand me or each other?”
And I’m not going to lie – it was difficult. Everything moved at an excruciatingly slow pace, and I felt like I didn’t get much accomplished. What typically takes three minutes to do in a normal group took thirty. Most of our communication involved hand signals, drawing, and showing them pictures of what I was talking about on my phone.
But, there was something going on in that group. While very little was understood verbally, connections were slowly being made. Being new and lonely in a new country, someone took the time to listen, even if they didn’t really understand. Routine, structure, and purpose were introduced during that hour that might not exist in other places of someone’s life who is in a new country.
This is why I believe our groups have an impact – in many different settings. While the nature of impact differs from group to group, students are given a safe place to reflect on life and figure out new ways to think and make decisions.
And no matter where you come from, life is better when you feel safe and heard.