For just about everyone, being 13, 14, 15, is hard. And for some, it’s very hard. Finding a tribe, a pack, a gang, is integral. For me, that tribe was Teen Leaders Club at the Western (nee Catonsville) Family YMCA. I do not believe that is is purely coincidental that the acronym for Teen Leaders Club is TLC.
I was lucky, my best friend at that time in my life was my cousin. She had a really good understanding of my quirks. The rest of the world, not so much. I would consider my middle school years among the worst in my life. I have little memory of how we stumbled onto Leaders – a friend of a friend perhaps? Who knows. The important thing is that it found us.
The group was in its very beginning stages; there were perhaps a half-dozen or so of us who came regularly. I began Leaders as a painfully shy, awkward teen. By the time I left I had grown into myself and was sure that I’d always be moving forward and be doing good things.
But how did this happen? How did it really help? Wasn’t I just growing up like teenagers do every day?
At weekend rallies and week-long PACCA (our leadership training school), we met other groups. We sang silly songs, performed skits and spilled our guts. And aspired to be more than six, to be twelve, twenty, and more. We exchanged addresses with Leaders from other clubs (and states) and wrote letters. Do people do that anymore? Real letters. With inspirational quotes. And stickers. And not a touch of irony. Not even a hint; all of it was completely sincere and earnest. We called each other. Made each other mix tapes. Made plans.
We had monthly Teen Nights. Dances. Sure there was dancing and making out in corners, but also palm reading and meeting people we otherwise wouldn’t have met. And we grew. People wanted to be like us. The year I “graduated” we had over forty members. I remember being super proud at how much we had grown. The kids we attracted came from all types of situations. Kids like me who were over-achievers, kids from good homes, kids who didn’t, who needed something to do on weeknights and weekends.
Leaders gave me confidence. Leaders introduced me to people who dyed their hair Manic Panic Blue, and people who knew Emily Dickinson by heart and read the Tao. Leaders taught me that people are good and want to do good in the world. It taught me how to be brave with my feelings. And that 60s music is awesome. To appreciate others. It was a safe place where we all were allowed to be as weird and unique or as mainstream as we wanted. We sold Christmas Trees, we babysat while parents shopped, we helped at Y events, we fundraised, we worked at cleanup days, we helped at summer camp. We became good citizens.
Our advisers always treated us like adults. We were the ones who made the decisions (or at least it felt that way). If we wanted to have a Holiday Party, then we planned one. If we wanted to have a lock-in with teens from another Leaders Club, then we worked it out. We wrote newspaper ads and school announcements for our Teen Nights. We learned how to organize and to plan and to problem solve. We also learned what it was like to have adults have our backs. To be trusted. Opinions valued.
I needed Leaders at least as much as it needed me. It pulled me out of the hole that I found myself in at the age of about 14. It was a little extra family. I didn’t have a rough family life by any stretch, but aside from my brother who is two years younger than me, my parents had two more children, one when I was 11 and one when I was 13, and they couldn’t help but be just a little bit distracted (not that they had to worry about me). Having a larger support system was wonderful. Learning that I was capable of taking care of myself, and capable of planning events and being a role model to others was invaluable.
Without Leaders I don’t think I’d have had the courage to just go and join the tennis team, not knowing anyone else who was on it. I wouldn’t have taken speech class in high school and talked about meditation and freeing Tibet. Or thought I was capable of being a cog in a machine that does good.
Others Leader alumni are social workers, teachers, soldiers, community managers and organizers, nurses.
There are dozens of people I would never have met without Leaders and I truly believe that a lot of them would step up and help me out simply because I was a Leader, too. It’s like any club, it’s members are devoted.
When I heard that our club was going to be no more I was immediately saddened. Without the support of the Y, the Teen Leaders Club cannot exist. Saving it and giving it a place to flourish is absolutely necessary.