Unlocking the Potential in Our Youth

My first real encounter with working with youth was in church over twenty-five years ago. Our church had a drama ministry, and I was tasked with putting together a Black History presentation with the teens. I was thoroughly excited because this was the first project that I was given full creative reigns, but the teens who had been voluntold into participating by their mothers and grandmothers were a lot less enthusiastic.

I wrote a piece called The Hamites Speak, which highlights the presence of black people in the Bible. I had a vision and knew that this drama could speak powerfully to our congregation. The question was whether I could pull off the vision with what I had to work with. One week turned into two; two turned into three weeks of rehearsal. As time passed, I began to recognize the strengths of each of the young people I was working with, and they began to trust me. After a while we began to gel with undeniable synergy.

On the day of the presentation, they were SUPERB!!! Better than anything I could have imagined! Out the gate, the congregation was totally enthralled. Amens and hallelujahs punctuated the air as the young thespians did a roll call from Keturah, Abraham’s second wife, to Simon of Cyrene, the black man forced to help Jesus bear His cross. Parents could not believe that these were their children who, only three short weeks earlier, were willing to opt for a whooping rather than “do this stupid skit thing.” Those three weeks taught me a lot about working with young people.

Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I say, “Young people are like treasure chests.” Each one brims with unfathomable riches. Gain access to the chest, and it’s amazing what you will find! Nothing—absolutely nothing—brings me greater joy than seeing young people discover things about themselves that they didn’t know were there, and once they discover one thing about themselves, it stirs a curiosity as to what else lies within them. But the keys (there are more than one) to unlocking the potential that lies within our youth are opportunity, commitment, encouragement, accountability, and resources.

Youth have to be given sincere (not token) opportunities to explore and unearth their gifts and to develop their talents. They need others to help them to understand that the world is bigger than what they see on a regular basis. They also need commitment. They need people to walk with them on the journey of self-discovery, not someone who checks in and out at whim. They’ll never trust that way. Another aspect of commitment is stick-to-itiveness. Young people are just that—people—which means that they’re prone to the same fickleness as adults. Furthermore, in dealing with young people, I’ve learned that an ounce of encouragement is worth a pound of criticism. A lot of times, young people are plagued with self-doubt. They are quite aware of what they can’t do or what they’re not good at. They need encouragement to counteract that. Then there’s accountability. Young people thrive where healthy boundaries are consistently maintained, and proper standards are exemplified. Another key to tapping into young people’s potential are resources. As Christopher Columbus told Queen Isabella, “It takes money to explore.” Investing in young people has the potential to produce amazing dividends!

Last month, the CSS Restorative Justice Program staff took a group of students to Wilmington to tour UNCW. We considered this an investment in the youth of Wayne County. Our aim was to help them to envision life after high school and to gather the information they need to take the next steps. With each stop along the tour and with each question asked, one could see the realm of possibility grow wider and wider in their eyes, and that’s what it’s all about.

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