Above all, you can do it. Surely, if you have like me no previous experience in youth work, you might doubt that you can actually help youths, especially if you are yourself still quite young. But after working a couple of weeks in my organization, which is an asylum seekers home in Leipzig, Germany, I am convinced that every person working there is making a difference. Even though what you might do is not perfect, but making an afford, being there and approachable for people and being a friend is already very valuable.
Recently I watched a video on Facebook which fascinated me: A 23-year old girl decided after a backpacking journey though Nepal, to stay in the country and to help orphans there. She does not have much means to do so, but she raised a lot of money back home and founded a orphanage where she raises dozens of children. Of course, there is a lot to criticize about this story and I personally do not like the idea of Europeans traveling around and saving meanwhile the world, but still, I think her dedication makes a difference. If her afford is helping indeed some children who would be homeless and abandoned instead, she is maybe saving the world a bit, and if it is only for an individual. This is, of course, a very extreme example of how you could engage in youth work, even though you might not have a pedagogical or physiological background.
My youth work journey was long, funny but also very demanding at times: Because you lack the expertise, you often have to ask for help or learn things yourself first, which is not exactly easy but it is worth it - Because you learn a lot about yourself and your relation to other people. Since I work with an especially vulnerable group, young asylum seekers, I find myself some confronted with uncomfortable situations and with huge responsibilities. Many youths here had high hopes, they have lost a lot and sometimes they are still very anxious about the situation in their home countries, since they have still families and friends in danger. When they learn about German bureaucracy, how slow things work and how restricted they are in their daily life at first, frustration is very likely. A good friend of mine, who is living in one of our apartments, fled from Syria right before he could finish high school. This means, that he has to repeat the last 3 years in a German high school, which is extremely difficult because it is - of course- entirely in German. He put lots of effort into his German education, but after years of slow progress, he is tired. And I completely understand, what is most saddening about his case is that with all that frustration, he turned to fundamentalist islamist preachers and becomes less and less approachable.
These cases are hard, and a youth worker can not do to much about it. Still, we have to acknowledge that we do our best in offering help, so it is up to the youths and children if they want to be helped. I collected here some general advices from my experiences, I hope they might be useful for some:
- Motivate: I consider it as very important that youths and their decisions are respected in youth work, so I would say the most important of our tasks is not to get as much youths as possible into trainings and activities, but to motivate them basically. If you motivate someone and support them in their journey to reach their goals, this help will be sustainable and efficient.
- Stay on an eye level: Since volunteers are most likely no professionals and in addition often as young as the target group, a superior attitude ( even if you might have more responsibilities and decisive power them them) does not help, it even hinders good youth work. Of course, you have to adapt in different roles: When you are teaching something for example, then you have to create some authority. But since you aren't a teacher by profession, it is okay to admit mistakes or to show that you are not perfectly knowing something.
- Know your limits: Still, there Is something you should know, and it’s your limits. So if you find yourself confronted with a situation which you can't deal with, seek for help. Especially working with youths, you have to be very careful not to overreach yourself and also not to endanger somebody. So if you don't know how to handle a situation or someone of your youth group, ask your supervisor or coworkers!
- Be a good listener and stay attentive: If there is one thing, which everybody needs, it is a good listener in one’s life. Even though there might not be much you can do in a situation, you can always listen to the person and try to understand.
- Create trust, but don't misuse it: Particularly with youths and children, trust is fundamental. But building a relationship of trust presents also a responsibility. Since we deal mostly with vulnerable and difficult groups of youths, it is important not to make to many promises or to be too close to someone and then to disappoint him/her.
- Support them with your skills: You might be a professional in something, but we all have specific skills, which could be drawing, sports, singing or organizing. You can always make use of them and support with your skills, personality and dedication!
- Help them with what they need: Help is an amazing thing, but it happens way too often that people try to help but don't listen. This leads mostly to unwanted support, tensions and, basically, doesn't help much. So listen and ask for what a person really needs and work with that.
- Reflect on yourself and possible impacts: It is not always easy to work with youths, who suffered a lot, they will tell you stories you don't want to hear. You have to reflect constantly how you feel about what is happening, how you process these stories and fates and where your emotional limits are. And it is completely fine if you tell someone that you cannot listen to that or to ask someone else to help. Have always in mind, that you work and help best, when you are yourself a happy, healthy person!