A few years ago we headed to a camp for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youths in Vermont. On the long drive to this camp I thought about how I could really have an impact on these kids in the two short days we would build with them. Upon my arrival, I spotted an extremely old picnic table on the camp site. It was so weathered that the only use I could see for it was kindling for a fire. I decided to hand each of the high school students a permanent marker and I told them to think about something that someone had once said to them that was hurtful. We talked about why it is so important to let these words go, to make room for the positive and empowering experiences they’ll have in the future.
This group of first-time builders didn’t hesitate to come up with the words they wanted to let go of. To me, it seemed sad that these hurtful words were so present in their minds; that they had no problem recalling them. I asked them to write these words on this old worn-out picnic table. After everyone else had finished, one young boy continued to write for a few more minutes. We all patiently waited. Once he was finished, he asked if I would read what he wrote out loud. I explained it was not necessary, but he insisted. After I read it to myself, I looked around and realized we were all sitting in a place of hurt and it would probably be ok to share. I read “the world would be a better place if you killed yourself you f*****’ f*****.
Hearing these words out loud was both shocking and sad. I talked about how our program typically uses tools to create, build and accomplish. But in order to make room for our creations, we would first need to demolish these negative thoughts. I pulled out a saw and showed them how to use it safely to cut up their section of the table, then toss the pieces into the fire pit. We then talked about how the fire and smoke would represent letting go of those words, making room for more positive ones. Once the old table and negative words were gone, we built a new picnic table together. Much like the act of letting go of the hurtful words, the build was an act of empowerment.
More recently, we spent a day running a similar program at The Circle Program, a long-time partner of ours. We wrote down hurtful words on old tables, cut up the tables, and then threw the pieces away. We couldn’t burn them this time, because there was paint on them, so we filled two garden carts, then teamed up and hauled them to the Dumpsters. As the girls hauled them off, the energy was low, and the atmosphere quiet and heavy. When we got to the Dumpster, I told the girls to throw the pieces into the Dumpster like they meant it.
As we headed back to build new tables, the girls asked if they could all pile into the carts. As the adult in this group, one would think I would respond responsibly and say no. However, something told me this would be a good idea and a good challenge. I told the girls that it was OK, but that they needed to stop immediately whenever I said to stop. So we all agreed to the terms and off we went. They were jammed into the carts and after I few minutes I yelled for them to stop. They were very quick to respond. I then asked them which load was heavier, the load of debris or the load of friends. They all agreed that both loads presented different challenges, but that their friends were worth carrying. We then talked about what we should carry with us and how much we all need to let go of.
There is much more to building with youth than what meets the eye. The physical application of building (and demolishing) allows us to not only talk about these kids’ feelings, but to demonstrate and communicate with them in a way they’ve never experienced before.
We know there are many more groups out there that could benefit from our program: facing real challenges and learning to use power tools. If you know of one, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, think about what you should let go of, because there are many wonderful things about you for which you might want to make room inside of yourself, so you can hold on to the good and let go of the bad.
Girls at Work, Inc. is a non-profit organization that offers our services to organizations that work with girls from group homes, low-income families, with incarcerated parents or parents in rehab. (While our focus is at-risk girls we don’t turn anyone away.) We also work to build partnerships with youth organizations that focus on girls at risk. We rely on funding and sponsorships to help subsidize the cost of our program. Please consider donating to our cause!