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When times are bad

By Nicole Pokorney

This blog post isn't going to be research-filled or one of great insight and wisdom, but one that comes from my heart. As I sit to write this week, I am reminded that ten years ago, a student I worked with passed away in a sudden accident. He was a senior in high school. I was six years into full-time youth ministry and had been in the youth development field for over ten years. I was on a bus full of youth headed back to the church from a service project when I received the call. Nothing had prepared me for having to break the news to the high school students on the bus. When we arrived at the church, youth had started to gather and within two hours, over 200 youth congregated in the basement of the church.

There are no words to describe the pain and suffering of the student's family or the confusion and loss that was felt by the countless youth that rotated through the church and funeral doors. It is even hard to describe the effect it had on me and the other youth leaders that were so engrossed in this crisis throughout the next year. After ten years, I still feel the need to talk about it, to shed tears, to connect with the youth that I worked with during that time.

When I reflect on the time of consolation and grief for the young people, I am reminded that this is the true essence of youth work. We create high quality programs. We research best practices. We train our staff and we seek out good professional development to keep current on issues. When the time comes that a tragedy strikes the youth in your program, the ONLY thing that counts is that you are there for the youth and provide a safe environment for them to grieve - a place that they can experience death for the first time, a place where caring adults are sensitive, genuine, and available. I guess that is the research snippet for this blog - that raw, primitive need for a safe environment.

The Youth Program Quality Assessment pyramid's most basic foundation is the SAFE ENVIRONMENT and within that platform is the promotion of psychological and emotional safety. In the Youth Program Quality Assessment Handbook, by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, this positive emotional climate that we create for youth is also vital for the social-emotional learning of the participants.

Those youth workers that have been in the field long enough can attest to my experience. Those that are new and planning to be part of youths' lives over a period of time will unfortunately be needed to help in a crisis such as this. Many youth workers are not prepared to handle emergency situations or unable to provide environments to foster the social-emotional needs of distraught youth. Prepare yourselves with unique professional development opportunities.

Many stories of love and support came out of this circumstance. Youth indicate that this part of their life and the character of the student lost helped shape them to be who they are today. I became a stronger youth worker and realized how important the soul of a youth is to programming and development.

His spirit is abundant in so many people. My heart smiles at the thought.

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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