Over the years, I have been fortunate to attend many child and youth care conferences. Often I share what I learned with students in my classes. Recently I reflected and more or less thought out loud about several of these conferences “and thoughts that they evoked, scenes and images from my other experiences related to child and youth care:
In St. Gallen, Switzerland, for a child and youth care conference a dozen or more years ago. I check out the playground. I want to see where the youth play, shoot a few hoops. When I get there, no one is around, but there is a ball in the container on the pole that holds the backboard and basket, and the net is still on the hoop. I wonder how long both have been there; is it true that no one wants to take either? This could not happen in the U.S. where we have chain nets and you have to bring your own ball and keep an eye on it.
I take the public ball and shoot a few hoops. A youth joins me, impressed I think by the vigor with which I still play. He looks very punk with his purple hair in a Mohawk cut; very out of place with the gray conservative surroundings in a city in which, like every other city, town and village in Switzerland, every man, I am told, has a rifle in his closet, a rifle he as been given as part of his duty in the Army Reserves “a rifle only very few men have ever used to kill another citizen of this closed society that still has World War II very much on its mind. "You have to watch those German's, they’re always in groups," a Swiss man told me on a boat ride to a dinner for conference attendees.
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(1957) As I go up for a lay-up, a stone hits me in the back. We are playing summer ball on a playground in the center of the city where the home team usually wins, and I am not on the home team. Many things happen on the playground, but not a lot in between, or at least not as much as will happen years later. People watch us. If we break a window or try to steal something someone will call our house. Except late a night when we manage to take cars from the used car lots for spins. The window watchers had shut out their lights and gone to bed by then. If more drugs were around, we would have used them, I imagine, but they were harder to find. We got high getting in other kinds of trouble.
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A few years ago in Copenhagen I borrow a bike from one public bike stand and leave it at another near my destination. Few bikes are stolen; getting around is easy. However, many of the youth seem lost. They walk down the streets not giving way, trying to be macho, and in their attempts to be different seem much the same in their nationalism as the youth in the U.S.
At a party at a residential treatment center the child and youth care workers get drunk, not thinking much about what it means to youth who have come from families where alcohol destroyed their unity. "The House of New Orleans," a worker sings as adults dance.
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(1970) Every summer we take all the kids from the residential treatment center to a Lutheran camp. We are welcome here whereas we are no longer welcome in a suburban Lutheran Church where the boys” acting out is too much of a disturbance. Nor are we welcomed at the Lutheran church with a gym near the residential center that is a member of a different synod, one being Wisconsin and the other Missouri. I can never get them straight, but it seems strange that we are not welcome in every church.
In a couple years or so the Pastors on the board, exercising their good stewardship, will vote to make the treatment center a private center for only Lutheran children with parents who can pay for their treatment. It is one of the better public treatment centers now, but the Pastors are concerned that most of the children and child and youth care workers are not Lutheran and that the workers have gone too far by reading from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet) at devotions.
In their wisdom and stewardship the Pastors will also attempt during the transition phase to make a member of the church, a teacher, the child and youth care supervisor. This will cause the child and youth care workers, who want to be supervised by a member of their profession, to protest at City Hall and threaten to unionize, and subsequently the excellent center will be closed and all the boys placed elsewhere. In a show of unity that has not yet been replicated, the workers will have stood up for their own professional development as proud, peaceful protestors for competent care for youth.
Now as we start another week at camp, we are all committed to our cause and eager to learn as much as we can about child and youth care, but there are many things we do not know. For example, we do not know in 1974, or at least we do not recognize when those of us who are off for the evening go into the small town near the campgrounds to party at the local tavern, that the youth, most of whom come from alcoholic families and are experts at sensing a hangover, will pick up on where we were the night before and be frightened or at least a little more leery of us. We also do not know as much about sexual abuse and the meaning of touch as we will later. Nonetheless the days at camp are filled with one-on-ones, group outings, swimming with buddy checks, treks in the woods, boating and ping-pong.
Fortunately in that fall of 1974 we will also find a church, an inner city black church that welcomes everyone, and has a pastor that comes down from the pulpit before the service to talk with our boys, unfazed by their language and other means of expressing themselves. In this house of God they are welcomed unconditionally, and many of us will experience another sense of organized religion.
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At an international conference in Milwaukee in 1994 child and youth care workers are introduced from 32 countries. When it is their turn, an integrated group of workers from South Africa stand proudly and receive the loudest applause. For years they had been meeting more or less in secret. But their new president has just been elected, and apartheid as it was once known has ended. They can stand in public without fear of repercussions.
At the same conference, workers from former soviet countries are in attendance. For many of them it is the first time they have left their country. Getting here for many of them has cost them from a third to half of their annual salaries. There are also many committed local child and youth care workers, but some were unwilling to drive across town to attend unless they could have paid time off.
At another conference in Czechoslovakia in 1990, shortly after the velvet revolution which restored capitalism and democracy to Czechoslovakia under the playwright leader Vaclav Havel, a Czech worker in a workshop asks a Western worker in English (the Western worker does not speak Czech) about individual treatment plans. "In the past," he says, "We had to work only with group plans. We did not have individual treatment plans."
"How did you manage the kids?" the Western worker asks.
"We had strict consequences."
Soon drug use and crime among youth will rise in Czechoslovakia.
On our visit my son and I walk through the city getting a feel for the landscape. Already most of the youth seem to look more like him than the youth hanging on to the Soviet ways.
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In Canada, the government often helps pay for the child and youth care conferences and this makes it easier for workers to attend. They seem to have more of a true youth culture in Canada, as opposed to our culture of exploiting youth for material gain, and subsequently their conferences are always lively and well attended. We had this once in the US, a true youth culture, I think “or maybe I am just fantasizing about Canada and us. Funding does seem worse. Many of the youth agencies, especially the small ones that often do the best job, are struggling just to keep their doors open. Society and the government for the most part want everything for kids and staff done cheaper. This year, however, our State association is expecting a large and enthusiastic attendance at the annual conference.
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Long ago I learned that it is both better and worse, and similar and different elsewhere for kids. We can learn from this, and of course from self as we are in these experiences.