Learning about the world on a youth retreat


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in partnership with Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood.

Imagine being rich, on top of the world. Then you find yourself middle class, with enough to get by. But suddenly you are poor, at the bottom of the economic barrel. That was the situation I was recently in at a youth retreat.

The retreat, called Operation Snowball, which was sponsored by the Illinois Teen Institute, took high school students from Chicago and suburban high schools to a YMCA camp in Wisconsin to get to know other people who wouldn’t otherwise interact.

We participated in many activities during the retreat; I signed up for philosophy and media classes. Both were exciting, and I learned a lot, such as information about the philosopher Confucius.

But one of most interesting activities we did at the camp in my opinion was what you could call the rich-to-poor exercise.

What I learned from it is how quickly people can have their livelihoods cut out from under them. Here’s what happened.

On the second day of the retreat, we went to the mess hall, a big cafeteria inside of a wooden building, and were split into groups of three: rich, middle class and poor. During the activity, the rich had steak to eat, the middle class had beans, but the poor had nothing. I was in the middle class group.

But we didn’t stay in our groups. Our instructor told people in the rich group and the poor group to stand up. Then she said, “You are rich but your job is moving out of the country to a place where it’s cheaper to pay for work. You have lost your job – please move to the poor group.” Just like that, their economic situation had changed. They felt shocked at the news.

The instructor continued, saying, “You are poor but a new company is coming to your village. Your life is about to change. Please move to the rich class.” Now the formerly poor group felt excited. I didn’t get moved from the middle class, however.

I was shocked that people could lose their jobs in an instant, without knowing it was coming and how some people take the small things for granted. For example, during the activity, some of the kids in the rich and middle class group refused to eat the food they had.

That was sad because the poor groups would have loved to have their food.

Later that day, all of the students – I would estimate there were about 50 in attendance – played a different sort of game called “befier.” We went around to different tables outside, around the campus, and we had to complete challenges, such as using toothpicks to get glue sticks to balance on top of each other. We got a bead for completing the task, and the first team with 11 beads was declared the winner.

I felt like I made strong connections on the trip, including with my new friend Maggie, Michelle, Gavin and others.

“It was amazing how you are able to trust these people in less than two days,” Maggie told me.

I think everyone in high school should experience a youth retreat to get to know the bigger world around them and practice communicating with new people.

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