Helping Young People Feel Welcome

At University Friends Meeting in Seattle, Washington, we have several systems in place to make sure children new to the meeting feel welcome in our midst. The meeting is near a large university, which means we have a sometimes transient population, as children visit for a few weeks or months while their parents are here on sabbatical or to attend a conference. "We have the special problems of a large meeting," says Kathy Hubenet, clerk of our education committee. "Kids can come to visit and become anonymous. Everyone has a hard time breaking into the meeting unless they are colorful, outspoken, or, in the case of children, particularly badly behaved." At UFM, we try to increase the kids’ chances of becoming known for being colorful or outspoken.

In an effort to include all children in the life of the meeting, the education committee has instituted what we call the concierge system. "Concierge" comes from the French, meaning a doorkeeper, and that is basically what we do. At every education committee meeting, committee members sign up to be the concierge for one of the Sundays in the coming month. The concierge will keep an eye out as people arrive and look for families who are new to the meeting. We direct any new children to the appropriate age group for First-day school or junior Friends, and we introduce them to the teachers or advisors. We explain a little about how the meeting works—for instance, that at our meeting the children spend ten minutes in the worship room at the beginning of meeting and then proceed to First-day school. Many newcomers are visiting from other meetings, and their children generally scamper in and start playing with the other kids. Others, new in town and exploring different religious communities, may be completely unfamiliar with Quakerism. We try to notice which families are new and to make sure they find their way around the building. "The concierge is somebody who can tell the new kids from the regulars. Sometimes it’s not clear what you are supposed to do when you first come to meeting," says Kathy Hubenet. The concierge will also fill in if there are extra kids in the preschool room, or if any of the teachers needs another adult on hand.

In addition to the concierge program, we have a list of regular assistants for First-day school. These people act as a second adult in the preschool room. "This is a whole set of people who do not have children in First-day school," Kathy Hubenet says. All volunteers go through a background check with Washington State Pa-trol. A happy byproduct of our efforts to orient children to the meeting is that we increase community-building among adults. "We are such a large meeting that we do not all know each other’s names," says Kathy Hubenet. "When people volunteer to be the second adult in the preschool room, they then have a relation-ship with the children and parents of the meeting."

Kathy Knowlton, one of our First-day school teachers for school-age children, integrates new children into the life of the meeting by using a tried-and-true method: singing a song. She opens her lesson every time with a simple tune on her lap harp, a good instrument for children. "Kids can play it even if they’ve never seen it before," she says. "Everybody gets to contribute to the community by playing a song." She combines song, teaching about Quakerism, and art projects in her lessons. On a recent Sunday, she and the children pretended they had an imaginary friend who had never been to meeting. They talked about how they would explain to this newcomer what it means to be a Quaker. The kids, several of whom were newcomers themselves, came up with the following list: being a Quaker means volunteering, silence, helping others, peace, and simplicity.

"I orient kids by whatever I’m doing," says Kathy Knowlton. "There’s not a specific orientation that we do every time. I think that kids learn from atmosphere as well as from the specific content of the lesson. For instance, playing the harp lets kids see the example of the golden rule—you listen to other kids play because you want to be listened to when you play."

Marja Brandon, another teacher of school-age children, agrees with her. While there may not be a planned orientation for new children, "we look at what it means to be a Quaker each week, using whatever window we’re looking through— holidays, special projects, etc." Marja Brandon has a special understanding of the challenges of orienting children. In addition to teaching children who are new to First-day school, she and her four children are themselves newcomers to University Friends Meeting. "Kathy took me around and explained what junior Friends was," says DJ Drevitch, Marja Brandon’s 13-year-old son. "The first time I went, the junior Friends introduced them-selves and were really open." Ten-year-old Jazz says the first time she visited, "the teacher played the name game, where you go around in the circle and say your name, then the person next to you has to say her name and your name." Sometimes the children like to play this game so much that they will play it even if they all know each other, adding personal snippets about each other as they go around the circle.

"University Friends Meeting has a large academic population," Marja Brandon says. "People tend to come and go. The structure of First-day school helps to get kids to come. When there’s a project they’re working on, the kids pressure the parents to come back." Earlier this year, she taught the kids five tenets of Quakerism by planting seeds in the garden. The children planted squash (for simplicity), pansies (for peace), impatiens (for integrity), carrots (for community), and eggplant (for equality). Then the school-age children challenged the junior Friends to name the five tenets. "This was a way for them to get to know the teenagers," says Brandon.

Orienting teenagers has its own set of challenges. "Teens are already encountering enough problems being a teen, so when there’s a new situation, establishing a personal connection is really important," says Nichole Byrne Lau, a junior Friends advisor. "When I get to know them as an individual, it helps them to want to come back." She adds that "Quakerism itself is conducive to the way teens think. It is an individual-based religion rather than a dogma-based religion. The attention to individuality is what teens really yearn for." When she has new junior Friends, Nichole Byrne Lau tries to make sure they know that they can talk and that their opinions are valued. "We try to make each feel that they belong here regardless of their age or social skills."

Adults sometimes do not realize how little it takes to make a child or a teenager feel connected. Dorsey Green, a member of our meeting, tells of the results of her efforts to regularly say hello to the children and teenagers whom she knows by name. "Most of the time they just grunt at me," she says. "But one time at yearly meeting there was a teenager who was in trouble and his parents asked if there was an adult whom he wanted to be present to discuss his problems, and he said, ‘Dorsey.’" Merely saying hello to the boy regularly had made him feel that he could trust her.

The University Friends Meeting education committee programs for orienting children to the meeting are just part of the meeting’s efforts to make newcomers welcome. In addition to the newcomers’ table and our twice-monthly light lunch, we have a sometimes-yearly community-building retreat, and, of course, quarterly meeting, which has an extensive program for children and teenagers. All activities are designed to deepen people’s relationship with the meeting and to give newcomers a sense of what our community is all about.
© 2003 Dana B. Standish.

Dana B. Standish

Dana B. Standish is a writer and a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, Wash.