We can all relate to being new: new to the lunchroom, new to the team, new to the community. Apart from the few legacy members, we were all new to Open Connections at some point. We had to learn the lingo and become accustomed to the culture. And let’s be honest, it does take time to get used to the way things are done at OC. There are annual events to attend, traditions to participate in, and lots of new words to incorporate into our vocabulary. But for many of us, OC’s differentness is one of the biggest reasons why we joined and why we stick around.
This year in the Shaping Your Life (SYL) program, we found ourselves in unchartered territory. Looking at the roster at the start of the program year, there were ten SYL members returning who had already participated in the program at least one year, and there were seven members who were new to OC or new to the program (moving up from Group Tutorial IV). By January, three more teens joined, all of whom were completely new to OC. This meant that for the first time, half of the group was entirely new to SYL; we had an even split of ten veterans and ten new members. This was an exciting prospect for us. How would we integrate these new young people? How would we foster connection so they felt that they belonged? We sought to do this in several ways.
One way that Shaping Your Life facilitates community between new and veteran members is through engaging in Real Work projects that require teamwork. One example is an ongoing project where the teens are building a ten-foot high tree platform in the OC woods. Every time a youth needs to go up on a step ladder, at least two other youth are asked to hold the base to keep the ladder stable. If a youth is driving in screws to anchor a support beam, another youth is handing them the screws and a third guides them to the location where the beam needs to be secured. If a wooden plank needs to be cut, a group carries it to the Woodshop and holds it in place as someone uses the chop saw. The project is fluid with small groups working on various facets of the project at any given time. This gives the youth many opportunities to work side-by-side with those they may have just met or do not know well. Bonds naturally form as people work together on completing important tasks. As Emma, one of the new-to-OC SYLers this year, commented, she had a “very smooth transition by having so many group activities that made me feel very welcome. I met another new SYL youth at the platform build, we texted each other, and then got to know each other.”
This teamwork mentality also extends into the lab where new members are often paired up with more experienced OCers. This year, the youth were asked to answer open-ended questions:
– “What makes the best cupcake and how do you statistically measure that?”
– “What factors affect the time it takes a pendulum to swing?”
– “What conditions impact how well an enzyme works to catalyze the breakdown of a human toxin?”
For several weeks, partners had the opportunity to work closely together in order to decide what they wanted to test and how to design an experiment to test it. As a Facilitator, listening to their brainstorming and planning sessions was a joy as they brought their unique strengths to the discussion, listened well to one another, and thoroughly invested themselves in their final ideas through their experimental design and testing phases.
What helps the teens to be able to work well together? The collaborative nature of the activities, yes, but even more so, the pro-social values of Open Connections such as no put-downs of self or others, an emphasis on collaboration over competition, an appreciation of individuality and a striving for the common good. As newcomer Emma noted, “At my old school people were always competing to be the best, [but] everyone at OC just encourages everyone to be THEIR best...Everyone supports each other unconditionally.” When people support one another like this, then the whole community thrives. And this makes any new member’s experience feel a lot more welcoming.
One final example of how SYL creates community among new and veteran members is through the fundraising efforts that make the annual overnight trip possible. Traditionally, the first fundraiser is a dinner. This year it was a spaghetti dinner combined with a trivia game. Regardless of the food served or the entertainment provided, what remains the same are the excellent opportunities for collaboration and new learning. Truth be told, the dinners make money, but the funds raised are a fairly small portion of the trip budget. We keep doing it because of what it does for the SYL members. Like a championship game or opening night, the dinner fundraiser requires everyone to do their part and support one another to make it a success. Infamous football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” We see that kind of individual commitment to one another happen throughout the entire dinner fundraiser. We see it in cooks
who spend their Friday shopping and then come early on Saturday to get to work. We see it in hosts who plan the seating charts, greet the guests, take payment, and then spend the rest of the event serving as an emcee or supporting the kitchen crew by scraping and stacking dirty dishes. We see it in servers who run around in the few minutes between seatings to make sure that every table, not just their own, is ready for the next guests. For the dinner to be a success, it doesn’t matter if you’re new or a veteran; all that matters is that you are “all in.”
Although we consciously plan all of these opportunities into our program, it often just takes time to see the cumulative effect of our efforts. One of our newest members is Connor. He joined us after the start of the program year after attending public high school. At first he opted to sit aside from the group and often chose to listen rather than speak. When we would come together at the couches, he always pulled up a chair that was outside of the circle. After a few weeks, we would encourage him to place his chair in the circle. That was in November and December. After the New Year, we saw big changes in Connor. Now he is an incredibly vocal member of the group; he facilitates video and board game gatherings outside of OC; he went from sitting out of the circle to being one of the emcees for the dinner event—standing on stage, mic in hand, under the lights, front and center. When asked how he felt he was able to get connected at OC, Connor said, “Everyone here is very close. It felt like at traditional school, everyone had a four foot bubble of personal space, and they would only talk to people that they were really close to. At OC, everyone simply integrates.”
Although as Facilitators we do our best to create opportunities for young people to connect with one another and engage in meaningful ways within the OC community, it is a two-way relationship. Reaching out is not merely enough. It also requires each individual to decide that they will take the steps towards us. At OC, we hope and believe that given the support, respect, space, and freedom to do so, in time we will all take the steps away from isolation, towards a loving community.