Every four years the Church of the Brethren holds a
National Youth Conference (NYC) on a state university campus in
Colorado. This is a mountaintop event literally and figuratively.
Thousands of youth come from all over the U.S. and the world to worship,
learn, serve, and have fun together. Worship is held in an arena with a
band, youth leaders, and amazing preachers. All the youth participate
in small groups and workshops. Everyone has opportunities to go hiking
in the mountains or work on a service project. This week is often
NYC can also be a little
overwhelming. The setting and activities are new and unfamiliar, the
environment can be loud, and the social demand is heavy. This year, we
created a new space at NYC called “The Oasis” for any youth feeling
stressed by the sensory and social load. We lit the room softly with
floor lamps and twinkle lights. There were bean bag chairs, large
pillows, and soft blankets thrown on the floor. We provided fidgets of
all kinds. There were coloring pages and puzzle books along with prayer
stations featuring reflective and encouraging hands-on activities. “The
Oasis” was open during free times, day and evening, for anyone to come
and rest for a while.
Some interesting things happened.
“The Oasis” was immediately sought out and used by some autistic youth.
Here they found a safe, undemanding space to land from the very
beginning of the conference. For one youth with an anxiety disorder,
just knowing "The Oasis" was available gave her the ability to cope.
Oasis" quickly became a place where youth with disabilities could find
resources and support. It was a place of understanding and reassurance
which enabled youth, advisors, and parents to express their concerns. At
the request of one family, we created a sensory area in the huge
worship arena where the sound was not quite so loud and we provided
noise-reducing headphones and fidgets. We found buddies for a youth in
need of companionship. Assistants helped get youth from one place to
another on campus.
The sensory area in worship and
“The Oasis” became the launching pads that some youth needed to brave
engaging with the rest of NYC activities. Several young people who at
first felt like they “just couldn’t do this” found that they could,
because there was a place to rest and regroup. As the week progressed,
anxious youth relaxed enough to venture out into new territory like
going to their small group without their parent or joining the rest of
their youth group on the main floor in worship. It was fun to see them
gradually relax, smile, and enjoy being at NYC.
“The Oasis” didn’t only benefit
disabled, autistic, or anxious youth. Many individuals and small groups
of youth came to color and relax for a while. Advisors rested with a
puzzle book. Some people just quietly made their way through the prayer
stations in the room and then left. Even program staff occasionally came
in, found a quiet corner and a pillow, and took a brief nap before
returning to their work.
One of the great learnings we
received from creating “The Oasis” was that when we provide these
supportive and gracious spaces for autistic and intellectually or
developmentally disabled friends, we also create spaces that are more
welcoming for all. In a stressful, often inhospitable world, how can we
create more of these oases of warmth and respite that accept everyone
just the way that they are?