People sometimes talk crap about today’s teenagers. You ask your typical Baby Boomer (my folks’ generation) or typical Gen Xer (mine) what they think about “kids these days,” and you might get something like:
“They don’t know how easy they have it”
“They can’t think for themselves”
“They’re whiners who want participation trophies”
“All they do all day is look at their phones.”
But even though lots of people my age and older wring their hands about what a bunch of “iPhone idiots” today’s teenagers look like to them, I know better. Because I’ve seen with my own eyes, up close and personal, how awesome some of these kids can be.
Last Friday, February 9, was the 4th Annual Night to Shine, hosted by the Tim Tebow Foundation. The premise is simple: Night to Shine is a prom for people 14 years and older who have special needs. It’s a huge party (90,000 guests this year) thrown by volunteers (175,000) held in churches (540) in the U.S. (all 50 states) and around the world (16 countries).
When our church, St. Christopher’s, was selected to be one of the host sites, word went out asking for volunteers. The people at St. Christopher’s who were coordinating with the Tim Tebow Foundation to pull this off thought that maybe they’d get 20 or 30 folks who’d pitch it. They scheduled a 2-hour training session and grossed their fingers, hoping that most of them would show.
Instead, what they got was about 200 volunteers, and at least half of them were high school students. Our church had never seen this level of enthusiasm, especially from young people. They had actual lines out the door of kids waiting to register to help.
Not only did they sign up, they showed up. Weeks before the dance, they donated gowns and shoes and jackets. In the hours before, they helped set up and decorate the hall where the dance would be held. They dressed up and did their hair, and were there early to be ready when everything started.
When the guests–about 100 teenagers and adults with intellectual and/or physical disabilities–arrived, the student volunteers waited outside in the cold to welcome and cheer them. They served as “buddies” to the guests, hanging out with them, talking with them, eating with them, dancing with them, taking selfies with them, going for limo rides around the block with them, and having fun with them.
To be sure, all of the kids that were there will report what they did to their guidance counselors to count as part of their hours of community service that they need to graduate. But none of them seemed like being there was a chore. None of them rolled their eyes or complained. None of them seemed to be bored or unhappy or “weirded out” by guests who were, very often, quite different from them or what they were used to. All of them seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, and were glad to spend their evening with their new friends.
As for the guests–well, I know they loved it. There’s no faking the amount and depth of joy they showed. Not even Oscar-winning Hollywood actors and actresses could pull that off. I could tell that for some of them, this sincerely was the best night of their lives.
And after the party was over–after the guests had all been crowned kings and queens of the prom and had left with their caretakers and parents–then kids kicked off their fancy shoes and changed out of outfits and got to work cleaning up and taking down decorations. And after that, they started posting photos online of them and their guests, having fun. That’s how you know they liked it, too.
Consider this: all of the kids who volunteered that night go to “typical” schools, public or private. The vast majority of them have no physical or intellectual challenges. All of them expect, in a few years, to be living on their own, taking care of themselves, making their own decisions. Most, if not all of them, will have jobs and careers. Many of them will go on to colleges and universities. Many of them will get married. Many of them will have children and grandchildren.
Most of the guests they partied with do not–or will not–have most–or any–of those things. Two sets of kids, very different from each other, coming from two very different worlds that do not often intersect. But for one night, they did, magnificently and movingly so.
For one night, hundreds (indeed thousands, when you consider the other 539 churches involved) of today’s teenagers–the ones sneered at for their “participation trophies” and their “cell phones” and their “social media”–rose above the low expectations some older people might have of them. They reached out to those whose lives and pasts and futures are very different from their own, and together, for one night, they shined.
Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy. His latest work-in-progress, This Wasted Land, a dark fantasy novel, will be published in 2018.
Kenton is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, (like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons) based on Navajo culture and belief. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.
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