DEAR TEENAGE READERS: I’m tired of hearing all the bad stuff about “teenagers of today.” They get called lazy and self-centered, entitled and demanding, or irresponsible and disrespectful. People unfairly label teens based on media, music (think the “Selfie” song) and how they are portrayed in movies and on TV.
It is with that in mind that I feel proud and excited to share what I witnessed May 17 at Capital Christian Center. I experienced the most amazing, kind, compassionate and selfless teenagers together in one gymnasium. What I witnessed was teenagers at their best.
That night was the fifth annual “Evening of Dreams,” a red carpet event organized by Michelle Raby for teenagers and young adults with disabilities. Each special-needs guest receives an escort for the evening whose goal is to provide their date with an evening of dance, formal pictures and refreshments. For this night, the teenage escorts knew that the night was not about them – it was about helping the guest have a wonderful evening and showing that they are important and valued.
I am often heard telling my patients or my teenagers, “It is OK to be uncomfortable.” We – and I don’t just mean teenagers – tend to shy away from what we don’t know or what seems different. We like to stay in our box, do what is comfortable and follow with our friends. But it is nights like Saturday that push us outside the box or to a place that is different or unexplored. It is from these moments that we grow the most emotionally and learn to see the world from another person’s viewpoint. It is these moments where we think we are doing something for someone else that we learn we have actually given ourselves a gift.
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As a volunteer that evening, my job was to take the guest from the check-in table to the place where they met their date for the evening. Neither person knew who they were meeting or how the evening would go. But that did not stop the beaming smiles, friendly hugs hello and genuine kindness I witnessed. Both sides seemed happy and both people felt like they were lucky. Between the guests and the escorts there were all kinds of people – short, tall, skinny, plump, walking or in a wheelchair. Their differences were not a barrier but something to be celebrated.
I met some amazing teenagers. I was fascinated with their spirits – some developing hilarious senses of humor after being dealt pretty rough circumstances. So many of these guests have spent their lives being seen as different, yet they had the courage to put on their snazzy clothes, leave their parents at the door and trust that the person they were assigned would treat them with respect and kindness. And the escorts did not let them down.
The teenage escorts from all different high schools didn’t know each other. Many were cross-town athletes who compete against each other in high school sports. Yet that night, all the teenagers were on the same team. There was a camaraderie and a common bond between all the escorts. No one was comparing each other, their clothes or who was the best athlete.
It was an honor to witness so many teenagers finding joy in watching someone else be happy. Cross the phrase “self-centered” off this group. No one was out of place and everyone was accepted.
I left that night with a full heart. I saw people happy. I saw teenagers treating teenagers with such dignity. I saw teenagers who could teach a few adults a lesson or two. I left with a newfound respect for so many young people. I wish those who doubt your generation saw what I did.
Why am I writing this column? To brag about what an extraordinary evening I had? Maybe, a little bit. You can’t help but want to share a night like this. But that’s not the only reason. It is also meant to challenge you to create these kinds of moments in your lives.
If you are in middle school or high school, odds are there are students with disabilities at your school. Maybe you walk by them every day and don’t pay attention to anyone besides your friends or people in your group. Maybe you make eye contact with them and smile, but never go the extra step and say hello or give them a high five. Is it possible you are so consumed with your life and your world that you are missing out on the chance to reach out and meet someone who could make a positive impact on your life?
They say we don’t remember the days, we remember the moments. Create these moments in your life where you can look in the mirror and say that you have made a difference in someone else’s life. You don’t have to do something big or dramatic, just do what is right.
Get out of your box. Do something for someone else. Open your eyes to the world around you. Acknowledge those who aren’t used to being noticed. Prove all those who incorrectly label teenagers wrong. Make someone else happy. Be uncomfortable.
That night was a moment I will never forget. I thought I was volunteering that evening to help others, but I was the one who benefited from the experience. I left a better person. I’m sure that most of the amazing teenagers I met that night would say the same.
Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist, works with adolescents.