The Importance of Asking…Twice.

The Importance of Asking…Twice.

This post was written by one of our facilitators, Sarah Brooks. Sarah is a blogger, mom of 3 boys and social media expert! She has spoken across the country at various groups, churches, and schools about social media (the good, the bad, and the confusing), most of which stemmed from a post she wrote called Parents: A Word About Instagram. Sarah currently facilitates a High School Support Group in Fort Worth ISD.

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I had a mild panic attack the morning I was set to lead my first Teen Life group. When I started looking over lesson one, I was shocked by how personal the discussion questions were. There was no building rapport, no easing in to sensitive topics with these people. No – right out of the gate, they expect me to walk into a group of teenagers I’ve never seen before, teenagers who are presumably hurting and/or experiencing significant life crisis, and ask questions like,

“On a scale from 1-10, how do you feel about yourself?”

and

“How much do you feel others care about you?”

For real??

I’m a wealthy suburban housewife facilitating a group in one of the lowest performing, lowest income high schools in our area. I knew these teens would be skeptical of me before I even said a word, but after reading lesson one I was afraid they’d actually be mad at such a blatant invasion of privacy.

None of it made sense….except that it worked. All the questions. None unanswered.

How? How is that possible?

I think the answer is in something I heard from a different group of teenagers a few weeks ago.

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During a small group discussion at a church student conference last month, a group of high schoolers and I were talking about the topic of friendship. What it looks like, the difference between online connection and in-person community, etc.

I asked them what traits they looked for in a friend.

“Authenticity.” one said. “No judgment.” said another.

Then one girl said, “I want a friend who will ask me how I’m doing….twice. Once for the fake answer, then again for the real answer. I want a friend who will wait and press for the real answer.”

(*pause to slow clap for that answer*)

I knew exactlywhat she was talking about, because over the past several months I’ve been conducting a social experiment I find hysterical that my husband is ever-so-slightly embarrassed by.

It goes like this: we’re eating a restaurant and the waiter comes up and asks one of a few standard questions, either “How are you tonight?” or “How was your food?”

Something along those lines.

My husband answers “Great!” at the same time I answer a loud “MEHHHH” with a noncommittal shrug. Sometimes if I’m feeling extra obnoxious, I say, “Not great!”

I’ve done this countless times in countless restaurants with countless waitstaff and not a single personhas a) heard me or b) asked a follow up question.

Nobody hears me because nobody is actually listening.

I mean, it’s dinner at a restaurant. Who cares, right? I don’t need to be best friends with Olive Garden James.

But I’m beginning to realize we do this a lot in regular life, too.

We ask all the right questions – because we’re interested and polite, of course – but we don’t actually listen for the answers.

How many times have you had an entire conversation with someone in which you didn’t hear a word they said?

You say, “Hey! How are you?” and as soon as the person starts answering your mind bounces to your work inbox and how you need to pick up the dry cleaning before they close and how your kid has that weird science project with the apples and – oh! he’s finished talking I should ask another question…

We live in a culture with really long to do lists and really cheap communication. We get so busy we forget to actually stop and listen.

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And this exactly why my Teen Life groups work. This is why those first students didn’t storm out on day one.

The curriculum we use provides practical, helpful tools for teenagers about how to live life better. It’s incredible.

But more than that, these students know that in a world stuffed so full of “connections” we’ve somehow disconnected ourselves from real conversation, they have a place once a week where they can come and be heard.

Even better, they’re heard by an adult who isn’t paid to talk to them, who didn’t give birth to them, and who apparently has no better hobby than to drive across town every Thursday to listen to what they have to say, simply because she – and the rest of the Teen Life team – believes in them.

We stop and we listen. (Curiously. We listen curiously.)

In today’s society, with today’s teens, that can make all the difference in the world.

Support Group Update 2018

Support Group Update 2018

Summer is officially here, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to share the ways your support, donations, and encouragement have impacted the 1,204 students who participated in Teen Life Support Groups this school year. Each week, I get to see the impact these groups make. These teenagers are more than numbers, campuses and school districts to me. I get to sit in their circles, hear their stories, and talk about their futures. I get this perspective most weeks of the school year, but I know that most of you are not Teen Life Facilitators.

You are in your own trenches – in your homes, classrooms, and churches. You are doing hard work, but you don’t always get to participate in the intentional conversations that a Teen Life Support Group can encourage. Each week, Teen Life Facilitators encourage the group to share their thoughts, experiences, and hopes. We talk about stress, relationships, internal resources, school, the ups and downs of life and more. In a 45 minute group, I can witness a bond and trust between 10 strangers that many people would have to work weeks or months to develop.

How is this possible?

Teenagers crave a safe place to talk and share. And Teen Life is able to step in this gap with the help of our volunteer facilitators and school staff.

Still a little skeptical? Here are some of the things that we heard from our facilitators this school year:

Last week, we challenged the students to work on building relationships with people they would like to be closer to. One of the students was set on picking someone else other than his biological father. He mentioned that the relationship is over and beyond healing. He seemed to have hard feelings regarding his father, but really liked his mom’s boyfriend. This week, he told me that, even though he said he did not want to pursue a relationship with his father, he decided to write a letter to him saying he wanted to build their father-son relationship. His father answered back with the same desire. It looks like the healing process has begun in this young man’s life.

Lots of great sharing from the girls. This was the week I started to really love leading this group. I feel like It’s a highlight of my week and one of the most important places I’m able to serve right now.

As always, you think your efforts are going by the wayside and then the girls open up about how much they feel they have learned and grown. One girl, who shared on paper that there hasn’t been any growth, then shares that it really helps to laugh with the other girls in the group because this makes life not seem so hard.

Though it isn’t fun when the group comes to a close, there is no doubt that [the last lesson] is my favorite. Today, I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “None of my peers have ever complimented me like that before.” The students were very moved by all that the other group members had to say about them. We concluded the group by reminding them that you cannot control your circumstances, but you can only control yourself. We also encouraged them to use what they learned to possibly help someone else in the future.

These stories are what make the numbers really mean something. Like I said above, the teenagers in our groups aren’t just numbers to me, our staff, or our facilitators. However, this year, we had our biggest year yet! I am so thankful to be a part of an organization that not only seeks to help as many teenagers and families as possible, but that takes the time to hear and invest in the individual stories.

Now that you’ve heard a few stories, here are some of the numbers from the 2017-2018 School Year:

Number of States

Number of School Districts

Number of School Campuses

Number of Students in Support Groups

Number of Facilitators Who Led a Group

This group update is so exciting for me to write! It shows that not only are we able to reach more teenagers each year because of our supporters and volunteers, but schools see value in equipping students outside of the classroom. The school counselors, teachers, and administrators that we work with want to give their students every opportunity to succeed and get the resources they need.

So I want to say thank you for another great school year. Thank you for supporting, encouraging, and giving to us. Thank you for trusting us with your teenagers. Thank you for inviting us on your school campuses and giving us a space to empower teens. Thank you for being a part of our groups – for sharing and being vulnerable. We could not do it without you!

 

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Marketing & Development Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
The Mess of Loving Teenagers

The Mess of Loving Teenagers

Loving teenagers isn’t always easy. Some days it is actually really difficult.

I had a tough Support Group this week. I did not walk away with a great feeling of accomplishment or even much hope. The conversations seemed to revolve around gangs, drugs, and baby mamas (yes, multiple). The students were distracted, disengaged, and at times disrespectful.

In situations like this, it would be so easy to walk away and not come back. I am not forced to like these teens. I am under no obligation to see them again.

But we don’t always have the choice to walk away. Many of us have teenagers in our lives that we have to spend time with. They live in our homes, go to our schools, are involved in our youth groups, and play on our sport teams.

 

I don’t have an answer that will make teen relationships easy or simple. (If you know of a trick, please share it!) But I do know a couple of things…

You are the right person.If you are already in the life of a teenager, there is no one more qualified to walk with them.  Teenagers don’t always need new people to come and change their lives. They need the people who are already in their lives to notice them, invest in them, and encourage them. Maybe that means helping them find other resources, but we have to tap into the community that is already surrounding our students. It is a hard job, but it is your job!

The right thing can be messy. If you are looking for the easy, clean thing, you might be looking for the wrong solution! It is right to stick it out in a Support Group that seems to be going wrong. Right is finding glimmers of hope like a girl talking about an attitude change that made her week better. That is small, and it didn’t get her out of trouble, but it is setting her on the right path. We don’t need to fear getting a little messy. I don’t know about you, but my life can be sticky, too. When we are dealing with other people (especially adolescents), it is always going to be messy, but it can also be right and good.

It is the right thing to stay. What difference would we see in teen culture if the people in their lives chose to stay? If that dad didn’t walk out? Or that teacher didn’t give up? Or that friend didn’t kill herself? By this point, I think we can all agree that staying is hard. But the simple the act of staying probably makes the biggest difference. I could completely stop my group after a hard week, but it is so much more powerful when I choose to come back. I might not agree with their choices, I might not like the words they use or the topics they discuss, but I will continue to come back week after week. Every time you stay, come back, and reengage, you are sending the message that you care and that they matter.

 

Teenagers need you. They need a community who will call them to a higher standard but stick around when they fall a little short. You are probably already doing this in your own context, but this is where Teen Life Support Groups can step onto a school campus and make a difference for a group of teens. For 8 weeks, we climb into the mess and keep coming back. Our volunteers ask the hard questions and encourage the small changes that make a big difference. We would love for you to step into the mess with us.

We are wrapping up our Spring Fundraiser this week, but you can still give to help us provide groups to students who need support, consistency and a little extra encouragement. You can give here. Help us equip students and let us empower you to stay in the hard times!

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Marketing & Development Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
The Girl Who Could Not Lift Her Head

The Girl Who Could Not Lift Her Head

I looked around the circle of students seated around the table and saw little eyes staring back at me in anticipation. All of these students were from different parts of the world and had arrived in America as children of immigrants and refugees. None of them spoke english, and for the most part, none of them spoke the same language. Maybe it wasn’t anticipation in their eyes but more of a fascination of an english-speaking white dude like me who had no idea how to interact.

As I looked around the table, I saw one student whose eyes were not on me. In fact, we couldn’t see her eyes at all. She had her head down in her arms and didn’t speak. While all of the other students seemed excited about being in one of our Teen Life groups, she was not. She wanted nothing to do with it, or so I thought. In a lot of other situations, I would have pressed a little harder to get her to participate. But this time I didn’t for some reason. I felt like something was going on in her life that she needed to just be in the group – on her terms.

So week after week, I would meet with this little “mini United Nations” of students, and we would muddle through trying to communicate and understand what was going on. Did I mention there were seven different languages represented in that group? So as you can imagine, the challenges were immense! And that little girl still didn’t talk.

Maybe they just enjoyed seeing me struggle. Perhaps there was some respite in the idea that a privileged white American like myself was at a disadvantage. I’m sure it was entertaining to see me try to relate to students who had either moved to America because of persecution or to find a better life. But little by little, we started understanding each other. And, little by little, that girl started to raise her head. While she didn’t participate much, every now and then, we would catch a smile.

We would do activities like “fist to five”. This one is easy – just ask someone any question and they get to answer using the numbers 0-5 to tell you how they feel about it. “Fist” is the worst (or zero) and “Five” is the best. So I could ask them, “How is school going today?”, and they had an easy way to answer – by just using their hands! More importantly, I could ask them what would have to happen to add one number to their answer. That’s where the good stuff started happening. And as the weeks went on, our little girl finally started to talk.

It turns out my little friend had endured significant emotional, sexual, and physical trauma in her life – unspeakable things had happened to her in her home country. She spoke Swahili and went by what I believe was a pseudonym. It doesn’t sound like she had much safety in her life, but she found it in our group by simply being there and listening – not being forced to do anything she didn’t want to do.

I remember the last day of group. I had a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to a little girl who had her hair done up and a really pretty dress on. She said, “Hi Mr Chris!!” At first I didn’t know who she was. But then I realized it was my little friend from group who, just seven weeks earlier, could not bring herself to make eye contact with anyone. She was walking with confidence and seemed excited about the world she was coming into.

Later I found out she has become a leader at this little international school. She would give tours to new students and families to welcome them to this school that had made such a difference in her life.

Some of you connected with Teen Life might not fully understand the impact of what we do and how our incredible volunteers make a difference in the lives of students year after year. Stories like this abound as our groups offer safety to students who need a place for support. We are unique in this space and how we do it.

And, the demand is growing. We have new school districts in new cities contacting us asking, “How do we get these groups on our campus?” In order to fulfill these requests, we need your support. Consider donating to our spring fundraiser as we build our funding to meet the needs of our community – and to help others as well.

Giving is simple and your dollar goes a long way. Please click the link below to make a donation!

 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s CEO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
4 Thoughts As I Exit Teen Life

4 Thoughts As I Exit Teen Life

What an amazing time the last 10 years have been. I want to take some time today and share why it might matter to you that I have gone from Program Director, to Executive Director, to CEO, to Founder, and finally to the first Teen Life Team member to resign.

You see, none of those roles have been easy, and my guess is there are things in your life that are not easy either. I hope that sharing from my story over the last decade will encourage you to stick with what is in front of you.

I am excited and sad about my transition away from Teen Life as Founder, but I am also thankful since I do not believe this will be my last connection to Teen Life. The reason for that is I think I will be able to use the skills I have learned at Teen Life wherever I go next, and I will use the principles that helped me learn those skills and tools to learn new, and even better ones, down the road.

That said, here is a behind the curtain look at what I have gone through since beginning Teen Life in 2008.

 

This job was not my first choice.

I have shared with some of you that when Teen Life started I was reluctant. It was new, I thought I still wanted to be a youth pastor, and I felt this new opportunity had been forced on me. I even went and interviewed at a couple of churches in the first 2 years we were getting started. What I can tell you nearly 10 years later is I fully believe that Teen Life was the right path for me. Not only for me but for the teenagers we have learned how to help. I believe that what changed was my ability to feel one way and act another, learning along the way how to adapt and make the necessary changes to build and grow an organization.

 

I feared failure was inevitable.

When we began offering groups, one school invited us onto their campus. We had an amazing opportunity to be in the classroom with students who needed our services. I knew we were making an impact and the students voiced that too. The problem was I was afraid that schools would not keep inviting us. I figured one school was kind enough to give us a try but that other schools would not be as inviting. I was very wrong, and it turns out my fear of failure was part of the problem. Not that I shouldn’t be afraid, but that if I had been more willing to try things early on we might be further down the road now. Thankfully, we have overcome that deficit, and this school year we have trained people who are working with over 1,000 students in 17 school districts and 3 states with 14 people being trained in Tennessee next week!

 

Trust is greater than suspicion.

I started reading a book recently that put this phrase in my mind. In Virtual Culture by Bryan Miles, he talks about how people want to be trusted. I want to be trusted, and I am sure you do too. The fact is I have learned a lot about how trust is a big part of an organization’s success. The ability to trust our volunteers is a necessary decision to help us effectively work with more students every school year. The trust that we have that schools will tell us how we are doing, along with the trust that the people I have invited to be part of the Teen Life team are going to do their job is a weight that is sometimes hard to carry. But it is worth it when you are pouring  yourself into something so meaningful.

 

Continuing to learn is required.

Read, listen to podcasts, prioritize conferences! These things are key to successfully replenishing and expanding our thinking to progress whatever task or project we have in front of us. I have learned so much from Donald Miller, Michael Hyatt, Ken Coleman & Rory Vaden. These virtual mentors have helped me grow and develop the skills needed to create the structure that will sustain the Teen Life organization after I am gone. I wish I had been introduced to these godly, intelligent men sooner.

 

With those lessons in mind, I want to close my time with Teen Life with this.

Supporters and friends, there is a bright future ahead for this organization. Chris Robey, Karlie Duke, Beth Nichols & Stevie Stevens all are doing a great job and will continue to as they stay laser-focused on how to equip, encourage, and empower teenagers to live life better. Your continued support of this team, our volunteers, this organization and your local school is vital to this success. I would urge you to ramp up your support. Become a trained volunteer, tell your local school, donate through our Teen Life Gives Back fundraiser going on now, pray that we continue to provide services that teenagers need and schools can’t live without.

Thank you all for your amazing support these past 10 years. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for Teen Life!

Ricky Lewis is our Founder and former CEO and has been with Teen Life since the beginning. As a father of 7, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.

Teen Life in Transition

Teen Life in Transition

With mixed feelings of sadness and gratitude, we wanted to let you know that our CEO, Ricky Lewis will be leaving Teen Life at the beginning of May. With his family, Ricky has decided to pursue an exciting ministry opportunity in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a Chaplain and Bible Teacher. This role will involve helping the school rewrite their program and curriculum that directs the growth of students’ spiritual lives.

“I am excited about this role because of the challenge it will provide in a new culture, the way I will be able to use the skills I have been developing the last 10 years, and the opportunity this will be for our kids to experience life on the other side of the world, literally.”

Ricky Lewis has been with Teen Life from the very beginning, starting as Program Director in 2008, then he transitioned to Executive Director and CEO. He has played a critical role in helping Teen Life grow as an organization and has shaped our curriculum and Support Groups into what they are today. While we are going to miss Ricky and his family, we wish them the best as they transition to Africa and the ministry opportunities they will continue to encounter with teenagers across the world.

In the midst of this transition, we are also excited to announce that the Board of Directors has named Chris Robey as the new CEO of Teen Life. Chris joined us in 2012 as Program Director, and transitioned to COO in 2017. In 2001, he graduated from Midwestern State University with his Bachelors Degree. After this, he served as a youth minister in Vernon and Granbury, TX while earning his Masters Degree in Family Life Education from Lubbock Christian University in 2010. All of Chris’ experience and education has helped him to better equip Teen Life’s work with teenagers and families.

“I am thrilled to serve as the new CEO of Teen Life! Ever since I began as Program Director almost six years ago, it has always been about our work and mission in the schools we serve. I look forward to more students being served by our amazing facilitators through our Support Groups. Teenagers and schools are being equipped, encouraged and empowered through a program that is getting better and better every year. Our future is bright, and I’m glad you are a part of it!”

In addition to Chris’ new role in Teen Life, Karlie Duke will take on the new role of Marketing and Development Director for Teen Life. She will continue to oversee Teen Life’s communications while also assisting Chris with fundraising events and opportunities. We are also excited that Beth Nichols will be transitioning to a full-time role as Teen Life’s Program Director starting June 1, 2018. She has been instrumental in developing our Support Group program and equipping our volunteer facilitators, especially during this time of transition. We know that our school districts and facilitators are in good hands with Beth in the role of Program Director.

Exciting things are continuing to happen for Teen Life as we are looking to expand our Support Groups to Tennessee through a training in Nashville on April 17. We are thankful for your continued support as we navigate this transition, and encourage you to reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns.

Ricky, thank you again for almost 10 years of serving teenagers through Teen Life! We are praying for your family as you continue to equip, encourage, and empower teenagers.