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Take Our Whole Lives OUT of Our Congregations

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General Assembly 2009 Event 4040

Presented by members of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Washington, DC, area: Reverend Archene Turner, Coordinator of Senior High Youth Ministry at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church; Jacomina de Regt, Our Whole Lives (OWL) facilitator and church member, UU Church of Arlington, VA; Linda Peebles Olsen, Minister of Religious Education, UU Church of Arlington, VA; Reverend Don Robinson, Beacon House Ministries.

The presenters described how OWL OUT was visioned, funded and implemented. In the Arlington church (UUCA), a small group came together and created a vision plan for lifespan OWL. In addition to programming OWL UUCA intentionally chose to make the Our Whole Lives program central to the mission of the church including it in their outreach and social justice ministries. At the same time, Archene Turner, who had developed a compatible vision as a seminarian and member of All Souls Church in Washington, DC, came to Arlington as a ministerial intern, bringing her relationship with Beacon House Ministries. The church decided to launch an outreach community based Our Whole Lives program—OWL OUT.

The workshop leaders noted that OWL has two components: secular materials and Sexuality and Our Faith materials, which include the slide set visuals. The Sexuality and Our Faith materials are not used outside a congregational setting. OWL OUT objectives were to offer OWL beyond the walls of Unitarian Universalist churches, incorporate comprehensive sexuality education into the standard program offerings of independent community centers or youth programs, and after doing so, to bring the model and feedback to the larger denominational community.

 The church combined a number of funding streams in getting the money to train leaders and underwrite expenses of the classes themselves. Jennifer Endo, Director, Arlington Housing Corp, in Arlington, VA, and church member worked with secular organizers to bring OWL OUT to their centers. She advised that any group which is considering offering the program will know their teens, and know if they’re ready.

The OWL OUT program identified and trained at least two staff member or volunteers, not Unitarian Universalists, associated with each community center. The program also ensured that teams of staff and volunteers rotated facilitators and that they had support provided by mentors: experienced OWL teachers from the Unitarian Universalist church.

To adapt the program to a non-church environment, the leaders tailored the curriculum to multicultural needs; adjusted schedule, content, and activities; and made all sessions stand alone. The workshop leaders explained that the culture of the community centers is one in which an expectation of regular attendance would create a barrier. The mentors expected the facilitators to take charge of the session, although they provided a structured format for planning, debriefing and mentored teaching.

Reverend Robinson shared his observations of the behavioral changes that the OWL OUT program led to. “The children are less promiscuous, are more aware of disease and more inclined to use protection”. He explained that many of the youth don’t even know basic anatomical language before taking the course and that much of their information comes from others as ignorant of biology as they are.

Currently there are five secular community-based sites for OWL OUT with support and facilitators from several area UU churches. OWL OUT organizers have learned a number of things in these early programs. Teens respond and learn well when content is adapted to include dynamic and different modalities of learning (music, video, and field trips). That parents trust the staff of their community centers and that the staff is the face of OWL to the community, which may mean addressing staff worries and anxieties. Additional training is needed for other staff, that they may understand and support the program and its goals. All facilitators will need ongoing training and support. The leaders also underscored the fact that “not everyone is good at this.” They recommend teachers be carefully selected for their ability to engage in the multicultural, anti-oppression work that is part of this ministry. The leaders commented that this is a natural niche for young adult Unitarian Universalist facilitators and encouraged congregations to connect their young adults and recent college graduates with the program.

They made some additional recommendations: understand mutual learning is happening and be prepared to learn from the youth at the community centers, invite Unitarian Universalist youth and OWL OUT youth to joint events, enrich the program with field trips and guest speakers, and consider outreach to parents and families as well.

The presentation included a video of interviews with several of the community youth about what they learned from the program. One teen said “I learned what I can catch from a boy, or if I go the other way, what I can get from a girl.” and another said “it opened my eyes to what women really go through.”

The question and answer session covered a wide variety of topics, including funding, details of interfaith relationships, cost of running the programs, who gets trained, how to communicate with non-English speaking parents, how to take it back home.

Reverend Peebles Olsen also noted that the benefits are not only in the outreach community, but inside the church community as well. “When we are doing this work in the community, it helps up understand the value of these ideas, the value of the community, and it becomes this whole community project... instead of a room in the church basement where a few people teach this to the eight graders.” 

Reported by Rebecca Kelley-Morgan; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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