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.

Defiance or Survival?

Defiance or Survival?

You are running errands at Target. You see a mom with her pre-teen. The girl mentions that she is hungry, and her mom explains that they are almost done at the store and will get some lunch once they get home. As you stand in the check-out line, you see her eyeing the candy. She asks for some. Again. Mom says, “No.” As you watch, you see the child has opted to steal the candy from the store as opposed to waiting until they get home.

Pause for a minute. How would you handle that situation? What if you were the parent? If you are like most parents I know, you proceed to lecture your child on stealing and add a few lines about how you told her she could eat at home. You drag her back into the store, purchase the candy, make said child apologize, and then take her home to do chores and earn the money back you just spent. Or you repossess her allowance money. You confiscate the candy and promise more consequences.

Now, think of the most challenging youth you know. It may be a student from your classroom at school. Maybe a teen from your church. It may be a youth who is involved with the legal system. It may be your friend’s child. It may be your own child. How do you really view their challenging behaviors? As defiance? As a lost cause?

Each day as parents, school staff, and youth workers, we confront behavior. Sometimes it’s minor disrespect. Sometimes it’s fighting in a hallway where someone is physically hurt.

Consider this:

Is a child or youth’s inappropriate behavior intentional defiance or is it a survival skill?

Even asking that question probably raises a few eyebrows. Most of us have the same gut response. I told (fill in a name) not to do that. They did it anyway. They have no respect for me and need to have (fill in a consequence). But is that really the full story? For our children, we know their story and their history. For other youth – students we see twice a week at a sports activity or church, students in our support groups – we usually only know part of their story. It is much harder to see their needs.

In the words of Dr. David Cross, “Having compassion and understanding helps us to see the need. Seeing the need is changing your frame of reference so you realize that these aberrant behaviors are survival strategies rather than willful disobedience. If you look at your child’s behavior through the lens of his history, his actions make perfect sense. We don’t know all of the potential hurt so we can’t always understand what it takes to survive. How we view behavior changes everything.”

Is the behavior functional? No, most likely not. However, it isn’t fruitful to remove a child’s survival strategy, no matter how negative, without giving them a new strategy. Demanding a child stop stealing food without providing for the very real fear that they will not have food is not going to be successful. Demanding that a child use their words and not fists when they have had to fight to protect themselves or a family member will not change the behavior, without first providing another strategy.

A few questions to consider:

Who is the child or youth in your world that makes you feel like you are spinning your wheels?

How can you change how YOU see their behavior? Can you see their needs not just their actions?

What tools can you provide to the youth in your life in order to increase their success?

 

**The survival vs. willful disobedience concept was introduce to our team while attending a training on Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI.) More information on TBRI can be found here.

 

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Manager. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.
Combating Fear in the Face of School Shootings

Combating Fear in the Face of School Shootings

Teenagers are pushed to face their fears and overcome them all the time. They fear failure, rejection, stress, the unknown, and so many other things. As adults, our job is to help them give voice to their fear and then figure out how they can find courage in the face of difficult times. But what happens when fear is deadly, random, and unpredictable? How do we respond to the understandable fear after a school shooting?

Fear cannot be ignored.

We see fear of bullies, failing a test, heights, being left, parent’s divorcing, humiliation, missing the shot, letting people down, getting sick. And now teenagers have to add the fear of getting attacked at school? We have to add the fear of our children not coming home at the end of the day?

It isn’t fair. It doesn’t make sense. But it is real and it is something that needs to be addressed.

While we do not have any answers for the tragedies that are taking place all over our country, here are a few ways that we can help combat fear.

 

Be ready for the crisis.

It is easy to react after a tragedy occurs. Once something horrible happens, we look for answers and start having conversations. But what  if we had already started these conversations? What if the ground work was already laid so that when something horrible happened, we were prepared?

It is important to talk to teenagers and kids about what is going on – in their school, city and country. They know something is wrong. They can read adults, and most have access to social media or the internet where they are probably getting more details than you would see on the evening news. We can’t avoid fear and difficult situations that happen across the country. So we need to start having conversations today. Develop a relationship with your student where you can have difficult conversations all the time. That will make these hard topics more manageable.

Here are a few tips to being ready for conversations:

  • Be shock proof: Remain calm when talking to your teens. Be genuine, but don’t let your own fear color the conversation.
  • Ask good questions: Resist the urge to lecture, but instead ask questions about what they have heard and how they are feeling.
  • Keep it appropriate: Conversations are important, but only if they are helpful. Don’t scare or over-share if your kids aren’t ready for it.
  • Be part of the solution: Get involved. Use the resources of schools and organizations, but don’t put all the responsibility on others.

 

Know your resources.

Speaking of being ready for a crisis…this is crucial! When something happens, you don’t have to walk through it by yourself – utilize the resources in your community, school and church. Maybe a resource is as simple as having another trusted adult on call if your teen would rather talk to someone outside of your house. Or be prepared if your child wants to talk to a counselor (whether it be their school counselor or another professional). Ask your church and school what resources are available – is there a series coming up that will address things like school shootings? Are support groups available on their campus? Is there an article or podcast that gives a different perspective?

There are so many resources available, and it will be incredibly helpful if you already know where to look first. Here are a few places we recommend:

  • Youth Specialties Blog: While these blogs are aimed at youth workers, they are a great resources to parents as well!
  • Teen Life: I may be a little biased, but Teen Life offers lots of great resources from our blog and podcast to Support Groups on school campuses.
  • Google: Earlier this week, someone asked us for an online resource after the Parkland shooting and by searching “how to have conversation with child about school shooting,” I found several great options!
  • Preventative Resources: Use resources like Michele Borba’s book or blog to talk about healthy things kids need to focus on. Start with this blog post!
  • Local Resources: Know what organizations are in your area! The Warm Place and Real Help For Real Life are two in Fort Worth but do some research around you.

 

Believe your kids.

It is so important to believe your kids, especially in times of fear and trial. I think sometimes we dismiss students as being dramatic or exaggerating. While teens can be dramatic, and they can exaggerate some details, is it worth not believing them if they are being completely truthful?

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, several students said that they weren’t surprised by the identity of the shooter. They had always joked that he would shoot the school. How terrible is that? Not only that they perceived the danger, but that they either didn’t share their concerns with adults or those adults didn’t take them seriously.

We have to give our teens the benefit of the doubt. If they express worry about a classmate or friend (whether that worry is about violence or suicide or depression), we need to listen. Validate what they are seeing, teach them how to get help and how to find resources for their peers.

 


 

Fear is all around us, and it is not something that is going away, especially with the digital world we live in today. Your teenagers are more aware of what is going on around the world than we ever were. They probably knew about the Florida school shooting before you did. Instead of hiding from fear, let’s learn how to cope, have positive conversations, and find helpful resources.

 

What are some resources you have found in times of tragedy? How have you helped teens combat fear?

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
Making A Better 2018

Making A Better 2018

During my last support group of the semester, we discussed 2018. One student, a senior and a teen mom, shared that she was more motivated than ever to graduate on time in May. Her son is only a few months old, and childcare is an ongoing challenge for her. Even though her path is far from easy, she was excited for what the new year would bring.

Are you excited?

Many of us spend this time of year reflecting on where we want to be. Statistics says that almost half of us will be setting resolutions and goals for 2018. Among the most common goals are: I will exercise every day and eat healthy. I will read one book a month. I will budget my money better. I will get organized. I will travel.

According to Nielsen Analytics Firm, “Only 14 percent of people over 50 actually achieve their resolution, compared to 39% of people in their 20’s.” Many times, people in the 15-24 year-old range have a reputation for not being consistent or not being motivated. However, that just isn’t the case. Students and young adults are willing to take risks and to follow through on those risks. Resolutions are a perfect example of this.

The older we get, the more we allow scars of the past and fear masked as wisdom to get in the way of achieving our goals. We get into our routines and ruts. We insulate ourselves. Our dreams and goals become safer, tamer, less challenging, or perhaps even less world-changing. We don’t have to push ourselves to change, and no one will force it upon us. We calculate our risks and then discuss all of the pros and cons before making a commitment. We often fail to reach them, and in turn become a bit disenchanted with goal-setting.

However, the teen moms I have in my support group each week are more than willing to take risks and follow through with commitments in order to achieve success. What can we learn from them? The mom I mentioned, who is excited and driven to graduate on time, is a great example. She knows that it helps both her and her child in the future for her to do so. Financial difficulties and lack of sleep, among other challenges, are not deterring her. She knows what she wants and knows the path she will need to walk this year in order to achieve her goals. And I believe that she will succeed.

As you make resolutions for 2018, or even if you don’t plan to make any, take a minute and take a page from the students and young adults around you. Encourage your children or the students you interact with each day or week. Ask them what their goals are, and push them to reach for their dreams this year. Statistically, they are more likely to succeed, and they will remember who cheered them onward and who the naysayers were. Pursue your own dreams with zest and passion, and don’t allow the potential risks or the fear of failure prevent you from moving toward an amazing 2018.

 

What are your goals for this year? How can you help the teens in your life reach their full potential in 2018? We are wishing you a Happy New Year full of opportunities and possibilities!

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Manager. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.