Teenagers are teenagers no matter where you go in the world. There will be boy-girl drama, family problems, girl fights, and school issues. And while living in a different country and culture can be quite overwhelming at times, doing youth work here is like slipping back into an old pair of shoes. It feels natural and familiar.
This past week, we had 150 teenagers flood our campus for our yearly December youth camp. I registered campers, printed name tags, coordinated small groups, led an afternoon of team-building games, and supported our student leaders. Every day I went to bed more tired than the day before. But every day I also went to bed knowing more and more why we do this camp. It all came to a head mid-week when we had something called “family time” where all of the leaders got up on stage and the campers could ask us questions about life. Simple enough but it quickly turned very real.
“What challenges did you face as a young person?”
I thought back to my time in high school as I looked out at the crowd of faces that earnestly wanted to know the answer. “My biggest challenge as a teen was not resisting temptation to do things I should not be doing like having sex or drinking. My biggest challenge was loneliness. I felt like I did not have friends and that the ones I did have did not really know me. I became depressed and no one knew. That time also translated into an attitude of very low self esteem that I am still trying to heal.”
One girl off to the side of the auditorium raised her hand, “How did you combat that low self esteem?” I could see in her eyes that it was not just a question. She knew what it felt like to not believe she is beautiful or capable.
“I know what that feels like. To be so low that you feel like you could never believe in yourself. I remember a specific day when I was 20 years old sitting by a lake in the States and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t go on thinking so little of myself. I know in my head that God thinks I am worthy and beautiful and just plain awesome, but I just do not believe it myself.’ But you know that you change your patterns of thinking by the things and people you have around you. So I decided to just swim in these truths that I did not believe and maybe just maybe it would sink in. So I wrote ‘You are Beautiful.’ On a note card and placed it smack dab in the middle of my mirror so that I would have to see it every morning. And you know what, it slowly worked somehow. At first I would look at it and say ‘yeah right.’ But the next day I would be like, ‘yeah right…?’”
The session went on with question after question. How do you deal with anger towards a mother who was never there for you? What do I do if I feel crippled by depression? How do I relate to my family that has such an unhealthy dynamic? As I sat on that stage, my heart just broke. These teens are hurting and have the weight of the world on their shoulders. And after that night they go back to their hard realities. But the thing that we ARE able to offer is reassurance that they are not alone and a hand to walk along with them even after camp ends, whether that is physically us or directing them to supportive communities.