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I’ve been bored nearly to tears at every graduation ceremony I’ve ever attended, but the minute I walked into a life skills graduation with World Changers, I knew I was in for a different experience.
I had returned to one of the classes I visited earlier this summer to witness the students’ graduation. Through everything I’ve seen, World Changers strives to empower its students in practical ways, and graduation ceremonies are no exception.
Students are in charge of organizing their own ceremony and as a result, the graduation of each class is unique and born out of the creativity of its members. Right away I could tell I wouldn’t be shedding any bored tears at this celebration.
With Pride and Joy
I stood in the back of the room, leaning against the wall of a community center filled with students and their friends. The smell of sausages grilling outside wafted in through the windows as children gathered to watch the scene unfolding inside.
I watched the students perform skits about the concepts they had learned and listened to the World Changers staff deliver inspiring words to the students about how to turn those lessons into next steps for their lives. We then shared a meal and one student acted as deejay. Finally, as the students’ names were called, they were required to dance for the class for a few moments before receiving their certificate.
As someone who dreads having every eye in the room on me, my heart went out to the students who approached the front of the class gingerly, clearly hoping to get the certificate and get out of the spotlight as quickly as possible.
But I loved watching as the World Changers staffers took the hands of those students and danced along with them, drawing out of them broad smiles and some sweet moves. Even the meekest student in the class transformed before my eyes, dancing with pride and joy in the end.
When we returned to campus that night, the staff members began reading through the course evaluations the students had submitted. One was particularly poignant:
“Since I started life skills, my life is not the same. Before, I was involved in gangs doing things like armed robbery, stealing, drugs. I was abusive, short-tempered and holding grudges with everyone who had a conflict with me. Life skills showed me that I had low self esteem. I was holding onto the past. I had no vision and no purpose. Now, I don’t want to play with my time anymore. I have plans for my life.”
I was suddenly moved by the reality that I had witnessed a true commencement for many of these students—the beginning of a new kind of life.
Those students weren’t busting a move because they were happy to be done with four weeks of committed classroom learning; their dancing was a genuine response to the fresh hope they felt for their future.
A person with a vision and a dream is a lot less likely to engage in the kinds of behaviors that lead to HIV/AIDS, prison and abusive relationships. Young men and women who have felt trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence are catching a new vision for their lives and being equipped with the knowledge and skills to walk into a better future.
As staff members passed that evaluation around the office, reading it together, a life skills staffer commented gently, “I just wish we had gotten there sooner.”
Getting There Sooner
The high school program at World Changers was born out of exactly that sentiment. With the belief that preventing problems is easier than solving them, World Changers initiated its high school program in 2003, shortly after the Academy’s inception in 2002.
Similar to the life skills program for unemployed young people that happens in community centers all over the province, the high school program begins with a life skills program for eighth graders in several area schools. Some of those students then participate in a week-long residential leadership program on campus.
I heard the high school students before I saw them. Their steady infiltration of the World Changers campus on a Sunday afternoon was hard to miss. They are loud and they are everywhere!
But with that graduation ceremony fresh in my mind, I enjoyed the raucous crew gathering in the classroom and the kitchen, hopeful that World Changers might be reaching these bright young people before they have to go through some of the destructive events the older life skills students have experienced.
The Ripple Effect
The cyclical nature of poverty and abuse leaves me, at times, with a feeling of despair. When I consider the fact HIV is just one of many snares that can trap young people in a place without hope, my heart aches with the magnitude of it.
As I sat in the first session about vision and goal-setting with the high school students, my heart longed to see this group of bright-eyed kids break out of that cycle. The students stood and introduced themselves and shared what they want to be when they grow up. A doctor. A social worker. A pilot. A chef.
“God created you uniquely for a purpose,” the World Changers facilitator told the students. “There is no one else who was formed exactly like you. You need to see yourself in 2030 and think about the kinds of decisions you need to make now in order to get there.”
I felt my spirits being buoyed by these young people, brimming with leadership potential. The ripple effect their decisions might have on their friends and their siblings and their classmates is immeasurable.
I think I needed to hear that message again for myself, too. I was created for a purpose. And I am responsible for my life. When I consider the kind of story I want my life to be in the end, it affects the decisions I make today. I want to get off the couch and get in the game.
The Thrill of Hope
World Changers is in the business of awakening people to the vision God has for their lives and then equipping them with the wisdom to take the necessary steps to get there.
And when young influencers catch a vision for their future and learn how to make that vision a reality, they become a real threat to the cycles that have long held sway in their families and communities. By the grace of God, I believe there are future doctors and social workers and pilots and chefs screaming in the courtyard behind me as I write.
When I think about the commencement that is happening here in the Valley of 1000 Hills with Loving South Africa’s partner ministries, I feel like dancing like those life skills graduates, thrilled with fresh hope for the future.
- Consider mentoring an at-risk young person in your community. The ripple effect of one life is immeasurable.
- Pray for the high school students in World Changers’ leadership program. Pray they would become visionary influencers in their communities.
- Consider giving financially to Loving South Africa. Increased funding at World Changers would allow the staff to reach more young influencers in Kwazulu-Natal.
About the Author: Jen Gunnels is a 2012 summer intern. She graduated in 2005 from Indiana University, where she studied journalism, political science and IU basketball. She loves sports, country music and the state fair and after feeling a stirring in her heart to leave her cubicle and go write, she is doing just that!