Every four years the Church of the Brethren holds a National Youth Conference (NYC) on a state university campus in Colorado. It’s a mountaintop event literally and figuratively. Thousands of youth come from all over the country 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 youth participate in small groups and workshops. Everyone has an opportunity to go hiking in the mountains or work on a service project. The week is often life-changing.
NYC also can 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 stressed by the sensory and social load. We lit the room softly with floor lamps and twinkle lights. We had 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 with reflective and encouraging hands-on activities. The Oasis was open at free times during the day and evening for anyone to come and rest for a while.
Some interesting things happened from the provision of this space. It was immediately sought out and used by some autistic youth. 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.
The Oasis became a place where disabled youth 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 worship arena where the sound was not quite so loud and noise-reducing headphones and fidgets were provided. Buddies were found for a disabled youth in need of companionship. Assistance was found for those needing help getting from one place to another on campus.
The sensory area in worship and the Oasis became launching pads for some youth to brave engaging the rest of NYC activities. Several youth who at first felt like they “just couldn’t do this” found that they could because they had a place to rest and re-group. As the week progressed, anxious youth relaxed enough to venture out into new territory such as going to their small group without a 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.
It wasn’t only disabled, autistic, or anxious youth who benefited from The Oasis. Many individual and small groups of youth came to color and relax for a while. Advisors took a rest with a puzzle book. Some people just quietly made their way through the prayer stations in the room and then left. Even 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 have received from creating both The Oasis and Parables Community is that when we provide these supportive and gracious spaces for autistic and intellectually or developmentally disabled friends, we also create a space that is 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?