A Place to be Yourself: Youth Group Open to New Members

by Annika Johnson

Image of USNF Youth Groupers standing in a circle in their rain boots on a camping trip. “USNF Youth Group” is added to the picture underneath their feet.

A typical Youth Group gathering: I check my watch as I press the buzzer at the door — 4:10. Looks like I’m a little late. I take a deep breath as I hurry down the carpeted stairs of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence (USNF). I open the door, and the smell of mac and cheese wafts from the kitchen.

I hang up my coat as people say hello. Everyone greets me with a smile. “Annika! how was your week?” The nervousness I felt about being late melts away as I remember the welcoming spirit of our group — to date, Youth Group is the only place I feel completely comfortable being late to.

I ask everyone what they’re making. One of the Youth Groupers tells me, “Mac and Cheese, along with some greens, and then apple crisp for dessert. We’re going to drop it off at the homeless shelter after Youth Group.”

Youth are serving themselves ice cream with toppings and being silly in the USNF kitchen.

We continue cooking, smiles ever-present on our faces. Everyone is comfortable talking and joking with one another, as exclusion has always been a four-letter word in Youth Group. It is very difficult to find spaces where there is such a universal inclusion and feelings of unanimous safety.

I was curious to find out what made our group so special for the youth who attend. I posed questions to each of the teens, asking them to use three words to describe youth group. Among the most common adjectives were: inclusive, loving, safe, and fun.

Bebe Leistyna, a third-year Youth Grouper, elaborated for me. “Youth Group is something I look forward to every week. It’s a safe space where I can be 100% my genuine self, no matter how I’m choosing to express myself.”

This description of Youth Group alone would have me sign up in a heartbeat. But I know many teens are very busy today, so I wanted to know what pulled them in initially. I soon found out that many youth joined specifically to get away from the hectic world of school and athletics.

I asked Zalia Maya, a second-year Youth Grouper, why she continues to come every week. Zalia, who is a junior at Northampton High School, told me, “Youth Group is a super amazing place to get away from the world for a couple hours. It’s a breath of fresh air in my life, which is amazing.”

Magsy Lombard, a second-year youth, chimed in. “I’ve stuck around because I fell in love with my fellow Youth Groupies. I feel safe and held in the Youth Group space.”

Back in our typical Youth Group meeting, we would finish up making mac and cheese, and move on to a game of Wah (which could be called our official game — it’s one of our favorites). Everyone is laughing and joking and even the people who have lost the round are in good spirits.

Youth Groupers cheering on Hot Chocolate Run participants.

The teenagers here do not seem weighed down by the burdens of the world, or sullen or unwelcoming, but quite the opposite. I’m wondering what about Youth Group has helped them to grow into more whole people and cultivate their true selves.

Colin Henrichon, a third-year youth, tells me, “I no longer feel as shy as I used to be.” In my experience, many places such as school can reinforce pre-existing shyness, highlighting differences among kids, allowing some to contribute more fully than others.

Rather than making our differences a point of division, Youth Group creates an atmosphere where differences are seen as assets to our group. The Youth Group does not only seek people who are Unitarian Universalist, but welcomes youth regardless of creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, origin, income and life experience.

Wondering how Youth Group created an inclusive community of all (and no) spiritualities, I asked Aurora what her experience was like as a pagan in the USNF youth group. “Throughout my time at the USNF I’ve never felt out of place. Everyone has always been accepting of me as well as my spiritual beliefs. By attending and planning worship services, I have found a special connection with the natural world and also with the magic our world holds.” Aurora’s experience is just one example of a Youth Grouper who has found affirmation regardless of their religion (or lack of religious beliefs).

Bebe tells me that they’ve had the opportunity to become more comfortable with themself in a social context. I would say this statement applies to myself and many of the other Youth Groupers.

We’ve all grown in Youth Group, but what specific activities does Youth Group offer to influence growth among young people? Many teens cited leading a worship service or having a position on the Youth Adult Council as contributing to a positive self-image, confidence, and leadership skills. The Youth Group is planned, facilitated, and led entirely by youth! And holding touch groups (small groups for deeper sharing, as well as all-group open discussions), fosters qualities like self-love, thoughtfulness and compassion.

Zalia told me that Youth Group has helped her grow because it taught her about community. In my experience, Youth Group has given me each of the skills that people described and has done so in the most fun and non-competitive way imaginable.

And I think that’s a universal fact for this group. I’ve grown in Youth Group, not because it was a requirement or it depended upon a grade. It’s because there is such as strong sense of togetherness and care that I felt comfortable taking on these roles and helping other youth along this transformation that I’ve found so fulfilling myself. Between the meeting planning, snacks, touch groups, lock-ins, affirmations, cooking and even clean-up time, I have found my sense of community and appreciation for this group only growing.

Youth Group meets every Sunday from 4–6pm, and is open to new members in the month of October. If you’re in grades 9–12, drop by and say hi on October 8, 15, or 29 from 4–6pm to eat delicious snacks and meet youth from schools all around the area. We meet at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, 220 Main Street, Northampton, MA. Come to the side door and ring the buzzer to come in! If you have any questions, get in touch with Youth Director Adrian Ballou at yruu.usnf@gmail.com. We’re excited to have you join us!