Unaccompanied Youth and VIM Teams
The following article is adapted from email correspondence between Jana Meyer, Minister of Missions of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC, and Bonnie Albert, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) Coordinator for the Indiana Conference, who has experience in leading VIM teams with children. It was reformatted and edited by Michael DeBorja, GBGM staff member.
JANA: I’m trying to find out information about whether other churches have taken youth not accompanied by their parents on domestic and international VIM trips, and what would be the best practices in terms of safety and legal liability. We have had requests for 16 and 17 year olds to go, whose parents are not able to go with them, and we’d like to keep the trips accessible to youth but also want to prioritize the safety of the youth and the team. I saw you quoted in a GBGM article on children and VIM. Any information on your experiences would be helpful.
BONNIE: I have just returned from Costa Rica and had several unaccompanied youth. We had 11 youth in all, ages 6 to 22, and 10 adults. I'm sure you are familiar with the Parental Consent form. I won't take anyone anywhere in country or out of country without this being completed, signed by both parents and notarized.
But even before we get that far, as team leader I must know the child and have developed enough of a relationship with him or her that I can trust that we are on the same page. One of the keys to taking unaccompanied teens is to do a good job of orientation with the team prior to going out to serve and to include the parents in this orientation.
My first international trip was to Africa University in Zimbabwe in 2000 and I had a 16 year old girl, Jill, with me. Her mother was a youth leader from another church but was very involved with us as we planned to go. What an amazing experience for Jill. She came back from spending time at the Fairfield orphanage and volunteered at a children's AIDS house in her home area. Now as a mother of two young children she just longs to go again.
So my advice is plan early, train early, have at least two orientation meetings, and carry the parental consent form with you at all times. I've heard of teams since 9/11 being turned away at the airport in the US if these were not presented. If the team leader has a funny "feeling" about taking someone, that should be addressed. I would further say the team leader must be very familiar with your church's safe sanctuary policies. What used to be OK for the safety of teens, is no longer recommended.
Are you familiar with the UMVIM Training Manual?* This is an excellent resource. All of your team leaders should have been trained by their conference UMVIM coordinator or someone serving as a trainer from the jurisdiction. We can't plan for everything, but the more informed our leaders are, the better chance we'll have a super experience for all.
I took this team this summer to Costa Rica because a youth asked to go. So I decided to plan a trip back to work with Charlie Strong. The team just grew without advertising and the kids were fantastic. We took two boys, ages 16 and 18, who were at one time foster children and have since been adopted by that family. These boys lived out of cars and storage areas when they were 5 and 7 years old. The entire experience for these boys was just amazing.
We had a 13 year old unaccompanied girl with us and I was a little concerned because she was so young. She'd been with me on a mission trip before, but her parents had been with us. We got phone cards so she could keep in touch with her dad. She was a hard working trooper. We also had her local church youth counselor with us so that was a huge help.
As you can see, I get a bit excited about VIM topics. Let me know how things go for you as you plan to include these young people. With the right supports, you can take most kids. They just need to know the rules of the time away. One more thing. I've used a book called "Before You Pack Your Bag, Prepare Your Heart" by Cindy Judge. It is an excellent book to help direct thinking of teens and adults before going out to serve.
JANA: Is the unaccompanied youth assigned to a particular adult in the group? How does this affect the dynamics of the group?
BONNIE: I've seldom done that. However, if it is just one youth, usually a bond is formed and the connection is made without planning. How many youth are you thinking might be involved compared to the number of adults? Are the youth acquainted with one another? How have they come to learn about the team? Unless you have a huge team, I would suggest that the team leader is the person to relate to the unaccompanied youth or another adult that the team leader has identified and has agreed to do so.
Are you able to determine why the unaccompanied youth wants to go? I think the adults must also be aware that youth are part of the team and embrace that aspect of the mission experience. If the adults don't want to be with kids, then maybe this is not the trip for them. I had a few adults stay away from the Costa Rica trip and I suspect it is because they weren't sure about group dynamics with teens. Their loss.
We have team "gatherings" at least once each day for debriefing and sharing. Youth and adults share in the devotions for the day. They get an opportunity to sign up during one of the orientation sessions so they come prepared to share. Sometimes a youth has asked an adult to do devotions with them or vice versa. Generally we have team tasks while on the trip such as helping with the cleanup after a meal. Youth and adults sign up for that as well. Generally they are a mixed group.
As I think back over the approximately 15 teams that I've led, I've never had any problems with team dynamics with or without unaccompanied minors. It all goes back to being prepared before you go.
One thing I've done for some recent trips is to set up a blog. Here's a link to the one I used before and after going to Costa Rica to help orient a team that was a bit spread out - we came from three states and four locations. We've just gotten some photos back from the side trip, so we will use that to reconnect with the team.
September 25, 2009
* A CD of the UMVIM Training Manual is available from the GBGM Mission Volunteers Office, email@example.com, for $7.50 (includes shipping & handling).
Photo credits: Bonnie Albert