on the outs

“safety and structure are the foundation of treatment.”

it’s first on the list of d.y.s. beliefs and philosophies. each of them appear on the wall of every classroom and dorm in every facility. all the staff and kids know them implicitly. if you take even a cursory look at the statement, you have to agree it’s true.

the kids we work with often have stories of pain and fear to tell. “home” and “family” carry much different connotations for many of them. their neighborhood streets may not be strangers to the sound of gunfire. many bear physical and emotional scars from abuse, neglect, victimization, and trauma.

through learning to trust, they are able to be vulnerable to one another and to open themselves to the possibility of change.

then they find themselves in a place where their needs – shelter, food, physical and emotional safety – are met in a way they likely did not expect “on the outs.” instead of fending for themselves, they are surrounded by people committed to helping them turn their lives around. through learning to trust, they are able to be vulnerable to one another and to open themselves to the possibility of change. there is at least one pair of eyes and ears aware of them 24 hours a day. they are held to high expectations for their behavior and daily life rhythms.

without safety, and the structure that engenders safety, the entire enterprise crumbles.

in the two weeks i’ve worked, doing little more than shadowing experienced staff and observing the process in action, i have already been deeply impacted by the girls’ willingness to disclose their own struggles and to help each other heal. there are obstacles to overcome, and it’s a process, not an event. but one thing stands out among several of them who are nearing their release.

they’re scared to leave.

the very safety and structure that have helped them make so much progress within the program are going to be hard to come by “on the outs.” (for the slang-challenged, that means “outside of detention.”) if kids haven’t truly internalized the lessons of their treatment, they will quickly fall back into old habits and patterns, and we will soon see them again. they have various resources to call upon, including their service coordinator (like a case worker), “tracker” (a young adult who mentors them), and even calling back to the facility to talk with staff and other students who know them. the majority are successful and do not re-offend.

i think there are clear parallels with youth ministry.

kids definitely need safety and structure at youth group. at times even physical safety must be consciously protected, but even more, the emotional safety of the group takes work to uphold. we cannot allow careless comments to shut down conversation. “what’s said in small group stays in small group.” (although that almost always leads to some doofus comment about las vegas style partying.) by fostering a climate and culture where you can put aside the fart jokes and giggling about the opposite sex long enough to get below the surface, we can actually see kids forge some critical relationships with each other and with us.

but ultimately, it’s not about being successful at small group. every kid who’s been in church knows that you can answer almost any question with “God/Jesus/church/Bible” and have a good chance of making the leader happy. but those answers cannot sustain a kid “on the outs” unless their walk with God is truly internalized. will they need support to make it in the world outside of church? absolutely. we fail in our role if they can’t count on us when it counts the most.

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About andrew burden

andrew blogs about being a volunteer youth leader, teacher, video editor, husband, friend, child of God
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