Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A real story of transformation (Video)

Each year our organization holds a fundraiser to feature the work we do of connecting youth and transforming lives.  I was honored to introduce a young lady named Zoe to the audience.  Because you were not there I wanted to be sure you had the chance to hear what she said. I threw the camera up as we headed on stage so the quality is not the best, but the story is worth hearing. I originally met her in the school and she got involved in our art program.  At one point she pulled me aside and told me that some words I said to her in passing had meant a great deal to her.

Her story inspires me to keep going in this work.  I hope it encourages you as a supporter of my work.  If you are not a supporter, would you consider doing so?  Right now through to the 31st of December (2013) the Chimp Foundation will allow you to make a donation to my work with ZERO fees.  This is an amazing opportunity to help me out.  Every penny helps.  Thanks for considering this request.  Click the following link to donate (just be sure to note that it is for Danny Ferguson for me to receive it)  Thanks so much. 

If you don't have a chance to watch the video at least read the transcript of Zoe speech here:

                It was about this time last year that I started attending an art club at my local community centre. I’ve loved art since I was a little girl, and some of my friends went to it so I thought I’d go check it out. I loved it. I wasn’t taking any art classes at school, so art club became my way to express myself creatively. I made the effort to go every week, and I can proudly say I haven’t missed a single one since. One of the best things about art club was the people; for it was there that I met Danny, Chris, Derian and Carmen, four youth workers who would impact my life in ways I couldn’t imagine.
            If you had met me then, on the outside I would have appear to be a typical teenaged girl: busy with schoolwork, hanging out with friends, singing in my school choir... but on the inside, I was a brewing storm. Powerful emotions that I had buried deep several years ago were starting to resurface. As I know now, I was starting to develop anxiety.
            Things started to become difficult, until it got to the point where just being my usual happy self was exhausting. I needed help. The youth workers supported me, carried the burden of my problems when I couldn’t, and helped me get back up when I crumpled under the weight of it all, but the best thing they did for me was introduce me to Jesus. I had never been entirely certain about my stance on religion, and I always seemed too busy to stop and figure it out, or at least that’s what I told myself.
            The Jesus thing all started all started at one of my usual coffee sessions with Carmen. She’s great at coming up with thought-provoking questions, so of course she asked me: “If your life is a house, where is God?”. I thought about it for a second before replying: “He’s knocking on the door.” Throughout the next couple weeks a growing discomfort sparked within me. Like when you can’t remember the name of an actor in a movie you just saw and it nags at you until you figure it out.
            The day I figured it out was awesome. Chris and Carmen were there with me when I opened the door to God and let him into my heart. I felt a sudden calm rush over me, the complete opposite of what I had been feeling up ‘til then, like dead silence after an eardrum-shattering rock concert. It was so nice to finally be at peace and after that, things started getting better. I’m not saying that my problems just magically disappeared; it just got easier to deal with them.
            This summer I went to Anvil Island Bible camp. Carmen was speaking there and so she was able to bring someone for free and she invited me. I was a bit nervous about it since I’d never been before and I wouldn’t know anyone besides Carmen, but I went and it was an amazing experience. The whole island has a holy, healing aura around it, and it was there that I fully began to understand a valuable lesson.      
            I used to think I was lost. That if I could only find the path and see what was ahead of me that everything would be alright, but I have learned there is only one way to deal with life’s obstacles and challenges: take it one step at a time, with someone there to walk beside you.

Some hope in ending exploitation

Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are a hot topic issue these days in the world of social justice.  Of course it is nothing new.  I was just reading an autobiography of a great Canadian artist named Emily Carr.  In her book she referenced "White Slavery" which she encountered during her time in art school in San Fransisco in the early 1900's.

For me it is not just an "issue" but rather an injustice that I have come face to face with.  I have cried many tears over the young lady who used to attend our programs, who used to deliver my newspaper who was recruited into the sex trade before she was even 14.  Once my eyes were opened to the steps leading up to the this, I began to recognize many young people who were being exploited in the community.

My co-worker and I have been working on this issue "off the sides of our desk" in a more concerted for the past several years and this month we have made some critical inroads toward our goal of ending exploitation in Langley.

  • We have developed an area wide action plan to address the prevention, intervention and aftercare of young people affected by exploitation.
  • We have employed a presentation the AIM of which is to increase Awareness, aid people to Identify the warning signs of exploitation and create a Movement of compassionate and motivated people to help join the cause.
  • In the past two years we have presented to every elementary and high school principal in the district as well as being invited to Parent Advisory Counsels, Social Justice Clubs and as featured speaker for the Professional Development training Days offered in the district for teachers, counselors, youth workers and support care workers in Langley.
  • We have built strong partnerships within local and national politicians, Miss Canada 2012 and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
  • Our efforts have been recognized by victim services and crime prevention divisions of the British Columbia Ministry of Justice.
All of this in the "spare time" that we have in between our regular responsibilities of being community youth workers and running our regular projects and programs.  Not to mention that we have to fund-raise for our own salaries and expenses.  At times it is difficult to find the necessary motivation to continue on in the fight.  (perhaps you can see why I don't have much time to update the blog)

This past week I was encouraged that the fight has been worth it.  We were contacted by another agency in the Langley area that wants to partner with our efforts and help to expand the current operations.  This may or may not come with some substantial funding to help offset the cost of materials, website developments as well as potentially pay my co-worker and I for the presentations that we do.  However, if that funding comes through or not, the exciting thing is that they want to appeal to a local Child and Youth Committee that is comprised of many key stake holders in the area to adopt our action plan and become certified trainers thereby increasing our capacity to make this dream come to fruition.  This is a huge step in the right direction. 

What is the true spirit of Christmas?

What is the true spirit of Christmas? The festivities? The feasting? The traditions? In observing my kids I’ve come to the conclusion that it is simply about anticipating the amazing.

I am often left disappointed with the season.  I anticipate amazing things but end up with exhaustion and debt. A conversation with a young lady at our art club helped me remember what’s missing from Christmas:

I noticed her in the far corner of the room.  I asked why she was sitting alone.  She indicated to her cell phone  plugged into the wall.  "I was dying" She said flatly.  I couldn't help but sense there was a double meaning to this phrase, but before I could inquire more she asked, “Can I have this?"

She held up a postcard we used in our discussion at our weekly art program.  Using comic book superheroes as examples we brought up the concept that, "with great power comes great responsibility".  In other words, if we have the power to change the world, do we have a responsibility to do so.  We then went through a list of real world philosophers and teachers that taught a similar message. This is a way that we can start to instill deeper conversations with kids.  After all what is more popular than comic book culture these days.  If you think that comic books are just for kids, think again.  They often deal with deep and difficult issues of life.  Yet we incorporate it into the real world by showing the connections with other teachings.  In this case it was the quote and stylized portrait of Jesus that she held in her hands now.

The quote was a paraphrase of Jesus words in Luke 12:48 "Great gifts mean great responsibilities.  Greater gifts.  Greater responsibilities. 
These four quotes were used in our discussion that day

"Why do you want it?" I didn't care if she took it, I just saw this as an opportunity to probe a bit deeper into her thought process. This is a kid that has often left the room when the conversation edged on vulnerability. 

"I just like how it looks." she responded.

My coworker had designed the card and I acknowledged that it did indeed look cool, but I also took the opportunity to ask "What do you think about Jesus?"as I tapped the card in her hand. 

"Well that's the thing," She paused in introspection and continued, "I know he had some sort of magical birth and he died on a cross, but I don't know anything else about him."  We discussed the bible, but she was really turned off by that idea.  She obviously as some baggage with religion in her life.  I shared with her a few of the stories about Jesus from the scriptures.  Not verbatim.  Just in my own words.  When I finished the story about the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus responded to this woman, this young lady looked back down at the card.
"I can't help but feel like he was pretty cool guy.”  I let those words soak in for a second before I replied.

"He still is." I said.  Her eyes snapped up and bore into me. 

"Are you implying that he is still alive?" She asked coolly.  She then made some rather amusing comments about zombies and ghosts.  Some people may have thought this was a distraction, but I could see she was really trying to sort out what I said.  In a world where almost every movie figure dies and is resurrected, people are not often wowed at the concept of people coming back from the dead.  She needed some time to come to grips of the reality of the implication, not just the story.

Please realize that this is a kid that has grown up and lives in a community where there are over 70 churches listed in the yellow pages and she had never once heard the story of Jesus' life nor of the resurrection. A few days later my co-worker and I took her for lunch and shared God's story with her
from the beginning.  At the end of our meal.  I asked, "Now you know the basics of the story.  What do you think?"

She replied "I think I would very, very much like to meet Jesus."

The disappointments that I have about Christmas can be summed up in those words.  Jesus’ birth was a symbol that God was finally going to put an end to the injustice of the world.  The people of that time didn't really understand that, and if I am honest, I don't really understand it either.  In many ways, the world still seems pretty screwed up.  The Christmas story seems as much like fokelore as Rudolf the red nosed reindeer. Yet the shepherds ran to meet a strangers baby in the middle of the night.  An entourage of foreign astrologers traveled for at least two years just to meet this child.  There was anticipation of the amazing.  These people likely died before Jesus really became anyone special.  But to them, just meeting him was amazement enough.   I need that kind of hope in my own life more than I need another gadget.

This drawing was done by the young lady in the story.

If you're like me, the challenge to find a joyful spirit isn't about saying Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays.  It isn't about putting up a manger scene in my front yard as opposed to an inflatable Santa.
This Christmas, like this young lady,  the challenge is to take some time to get to know Jesus a little better.  Not just the story of his birth, but the story of his life. If we legitimately look, I bet we find something amazing just from meeting him.

Monday, July 29, 2013

What does a Youth Worker do anyway?

"What do you do for an actual job?"

That was the question posed to me over lunch with a member of my church after the service one Sunday afternoon.  At first I thought that they were joking or had asked the question out of a automated list of questions that you are supposed to ask to fill in awkward moments.  However, that was not the case.  What made the question so shocking was that my job was as the Youth Pastor at the church.  The person asking me the question had kids in my youth group.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident, but it is a rather common question.  Many people don't realize that the life of a youth pastor or a community youth worker is often times a job that consumes much more time than an actual 40 hour per week job.  That is because of the work that we do is either unseen or noticed.  In fact when we do our jobs well, no one can tell.

  • The teen that struggles with violence does not end up getting arrested.
  • The suicide attempt that the kid has been wrestling over never happens.
  • The group of kids stays in and watches movies instead of drinking at the park
  • The youth center is not surrounded by fire trucks.

However, part of the problem is that as youth workers we often get so busy doing the job of building relationships with the teens in our care that we have little to no energy to promoting our work to others.  The other part of the problem is that the terminology that we use doesn't sound much like work to those that are not involved in it.  For instance, if I say that i was hanging out with a group of kids where we played video games and ate pizza, that sounds a lot easier than pounding nails at a construction site. Doesn't it?

For that reason my team and I have worked hard to help people understand what it is that we do and how we spend our time.

Rather than say we hang out at schools or skate parks - - - we say we INTERSECT with kids in their every day lives in the places they already are.

Rather than say we hang out with kids at a coffee shop - - - we say we INVEST into young people that need a friend and talk about things that matter to them.

Rather than say we hang out with the other youth workers - - - we say we INTERCEDE in the lives of young people as advocates helping their friends, family, teachers and the greater community better understand the issues our young people are facing

Rather than say we hang out with a youth group - - - we say we INCUBATE an environment for growth and development.  That is, we don't force kids to grow or believe the things we tell them, but rather we give them space to be challenge to think in deeper ways if they so choose.

Rather than say we hang out in some cool places - - - we say we INSPIRE young people to make a difference in the world around them, be that picking up garbage off the street or organizing a benefit concert.  We want to help them achieve their dreams.

When you start to look at things that way, you can begin to see how time consuming it all is.  The time "hanging out playing video games and eating pizza" is not an escape from real work, it is part of the job.  Sometimes the job is awesome and fun.  Other times when you on the phone in the middle of the night with a crises it is less so.  Every job has it's good point and bad points.  Just think though, even with just a kid or two, that would take a lot of time.  My team literally comes into contact with thousands of young people every year.

Now when someone asks me what it is that I do for a job when they should know, I am not offended - I take it as an opportunity to help someone understand how important the role of a youth worker is to the kids in the community and I hang the conversation around this phrase.

As a youth worker striving to live out my faith you can find me engaging in the lives of young people and fostering the connections they need to thrive.

That is what a youth worker does.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New ad campaign targets boys in the reality of teen parenting

The Chicago department of public health released a series of images that challenge the concepts of teen pregnancy being a primary issue of the female gender.  In these ads, boys are depicted at various stages of pregnancy.  As seen here:

Read more about this campaign by clicking on the image

Some people may be offended at the images, others sing their praises, but one thing is for sure - these ads are creating conversation over the issue of a social issues that is rarely addressed: fatherlessness.  When I first started in youth work, I would occasionally meet a kid without a dad.  Today the majority of young people that I work with come from backgrounds where their dad's are not a part of their lives.  I understand that parents split, divorce happens.  I am not trying to fix broken relationships, but I am an advocate for teaching boys how to be dads.

The new Facebook app that may save your life.

Many young people that I have worked with have accused me of having some sort of telepathy skills. That is, that I have the ability to know what it is that they are thinking.  While the thought of having some superpowers does sounds pretty cool, the truth is that the majority of my skill has been learned through experience and active listening.  What that basically means is that when I am listening to a young person talk I am trying to take in all the cues I can.  How are they sitting?  What is their tone of voice?  What language are they using?  Where are they looking as they talk?  I then merely reflect back what it is that I think they just communicated to me.  Through this process I can sometimes get a sense of what a kid may be thinking.  One reason for this is being able to assess if a young person is at risk of hurting themselves or others.

There is a new app (the Durkheim project) being developed for social media that is trying to do the same thing.  Using a complex algorithm, the app analyzes status updates of users that may indicate if someone is at risk of attempting suicide.  This is based on the online language used by those who have committed suicide.  At this point the primary target demographic is veterans, the implications for young people is immediately apparent.  Has science found a way of eliminating youth workers?

You can read more about the Durkheim project here:

Privacy issues aside, there are some other potential concerns.  One is that analysis outside of relationship is very subjective.  For instance there is a 19-year-old serving jail time exactly because someone stumbled upon a threatening facebook comment left by the kid although he claims it was merely sarcasm.  Action needs to be taken in cases like this, but sometimes that action is that the kid needs to go for a slushie while having a conversation about what is appropriate to share online, sometimes police need to be involved.  It is a fine line, but it is makes me advocate for more youth workers rather than just another app.  Read more about this topic here:

Tell me your thoughts on the subject below.

Monday, June 24, 2013

How to challenge youth effectively.

Learning to challenge young people can be tough.  In this video by Lifeteams, my good friend and coworker Rob Snair talks about how a spelunking experience with some students illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses we have in learning to challenge people effectively.  

If you are a youth worker this is a much watch, however the advice is sound if you are a parent looking to help your kids or a teen wanting to challenge your friends or family. 

Do you have a similar experience.  Don't forget to share.