One special aspect of junior youth groups is the “animator gathering”. This is a regular meeting where animators in a cluster or region can come together to share experiences, identify lessons learned, consult on challenges, encourage each other, and plan future actions. These gatherings play a vital role in building the capacity of animators and in sustaining junior youth groups. We are happy to share the report of a recent animator gathering held in Eugene, OR (A). The participants framed their consultations with review of some key guidance, studied specific sections of Ruhi Book 5 (Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth), sharing their own experiences, and experiences of other animators around the world, and practical exercises to build skills related to group formation. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a very rich set of insights. One particularly striking point is that we should make accompaniment a constant aspect of our service, to “always bring someone along” with us for every task.
Eight friends gathered in Eugene for an animator gathering. Our thoughts were on the Bahá’ís on trial occurring that same hour; our prayers and devotional music were focused on our beloved friends in Iran and for assistance to raise up souls who would "adorn the world of being with a new raiment and a wondrous robe". After a round of introductions in which we shared joyous moments from our own memories when we were junior youth, a brief message was conveyed on behalf of the Regional Institute Coordinator expressing admiration for the steadfast service of the friends in Eugene. The Cluster Institute Coordinator, in whose home we were meeting, has also been very supportive of the animators, and gratitude was expressed for her assistance and support. . . .
We then began studying the guidance on the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. We reflected upon the vision of junior youth who would be empowered to "rescue their peers", and how "spiritual battles will be on the street corners of village and city, in the school hallways and places of recreation". (from a December 1988 letter of the International Teaching Center) The paragraph on junior youth in the Ridvan 2000 message was also read. We then familiarized ourselves with the purpose and nature of the program.
Several comments from youth who had participated in the junior youth activities in rural India (obtained from the Ruhi Institute’s Web site at www.ruhi.org) were shared. These comments were inspiring and clearly illustrated the program's potential for encouraging junior youth and youth to bring about social change within their own communities. One comment led to an excited discussion on the use of the book “Breezes of Confirmation” and how junior youth in our region have responded to it.
One animator in Eugene shared how a junior youth who had difficulty reading often showed that he grasped the concepts in the book despite struggling with the language. This was evident as the junior youth would enthusiastically re-tell the story to other participants in his group when they had missed a group meeting.
A conversation on the nature of accompaniment then ensued. The logo on the front of the Ruhi books—of people holding hands—depicted beautifully how we may be engaged in service. The friends were encouraged to always bring along someone as they serve, whether in starting new groups, in animating, in planning group meetings or studying and reflecting, so that the learning experience is always shared with others. We hope to develop more systematic ways of noting what we are learning and communicating it with others effectively.
We then went through some of the sections of Unit 3 in Ruhi Book 5. Many creative and practical approaches on how to form groups were shared by the participants. Some of the approaches had already been tried by animators and others will be attempted as new groups form and current groups expand in number.
One approach is to encourage the junior youth to invite their friends. Two experiences were shared about how a junior youth who visited previously existing groups had a sense about what the purpose of the program was and therefore found it easy to invite their friends to something they had themselves experienced. An interesting insight was shared that, as a result of attending a junior youth group, it is easier for a junior youth to define their Bahá’í identity by the activities the group engages in (e.g., service, study, arts). This therefore provides them a means to teach their peers about the Faith, not simply by describing principles but through actual deeds.
One animator mentioned that having group meetings in a common public area, particularly in warm weather, has also been an effective way to attract new members. Another suggestion was to hold a series of service projects in a particular neighborhood that would attract the attention of those living there, and provide a natural way to introduce the program.
As more members join a junior youth group, they would also then invite their other friends—this has been a successful approach for one group in Eugene which has now almost doubled in size. One challenge of this approach (friends inviting friends) is the animators are trying to find a systematic way to follow up with the parents, since they are not making the initial introductions to the program for the junior youth.
Since Eugene is a city that lends itself to micro-neighborhoods, it was suggested that the friends interact at a local level (community markets, free classes, local schools), to get to know parents of junior youth or teachers, and introduce the program to them.
The group also split itself into pairs who practiced introducing the junior youth program to each other, as one might do to a parent. The purpose of this was to familiarize participants with the language and the concepts with which we might describe the program. The Ridvan 2000 paragraph on junior youth was suggested as a guide as to how to present key ideas about junior youth and the purpose of the program.
The Cluster Institute Coordinator and a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly also shared the guidelines from the National Spiritual Assembly for the protection of junior youth—specifically on ensuring that at all times, two adults or animators were present with the junior youth.
One group requested for help in identifying an animator, as one of our youth will be leaving to serve at the World Center later this year. Two participants immediately offered their assistance to help sustain this group, such was the spirit of community and desire to serve amongst the friends present!
Plans were then made about when the next animator gathering could be held. Since an intensive weekend covering Unit 3 of Book 5 is already planned for February, the next animator gathering will be in March. One suggested topic for the next gathering would be the nature of complementary activities such as arts and crafts in a group. It was announced that an intensive (4-day weekend) Book 5 will be held in early February and another during Spring Break.
The gathering ended with a song about the Bahá’ís in Iran. The friends left with resolute hearts about their plans to complete Book 5 as soon as possible, focus on expanding their groups, and ensuring existing groups continue to be sustained. We all felt moved by the sacrifices of the Bahá’ís in Iran, and were determined to strive in our service, in recognition of their sacrifices.