Mahalapye Teen Club: From Tears to Hope

*For more information about our 2009-2010 Fundraising Drive, please visit our Donations page.*

The following post is courtesy of Caitlin McSweeney, an Adult Volunteer at Mahalapye Teen Club:

A one-on-one with an adult volunteer.  Photo courtesy of Kim Mehta.
A one-on-one with an adult volunteer. Photo courtesy of Kim Mehta.

Mahalapye Teen Club: From Tears to Hope

With the great adventure of Camp Hope barely behind me it was time again for our Mahalapye Teen Club. Waking up Friday morning I knew that the task of the day would be to make sure that we had everything ready for Saturday…our third Teen Club.

The previous two Teen Clubs have really been about the teens and the adults getting to know each other and all of us trying to find our groove for our how we want our Teen Club to run. At a meeting last week however, we decide it was time to put our game faces on. Teen Club events are supposed to be part social but are also supposed to be part life skills – teaching the kids about different topics that should help them as they grow up.

This month we decided to do “Feelings & Emotions”. Another Teen Club had actually created this lesson and so the lesson plan already existed. I am still in the process of getting a lot of my volunteers to actively participate in creating lesson ideas and the activities that would support them…it’s a little tougher than I anticipated but I am hoping that as the process continues more will come on board.

So, “Feelings & Emotions” it was. Saturday as we arrived at our Teen Club location we set up for the day. We play music during the beginning of every session to try and get the kids warmed up a little bit. So with Rihanna, T.I. and various other artists blasting at top volume we got it started. After warm ups and tea the first activity was “getting to know your emotions”.

The teens all sat around a table and folded a piece of paper into six sections. In the first square they were told to write “happy” or “boitumelo” in Setswana. Then they were told to draw what they thought a happy face looked like. This process was repeated for “sad”, “angry”, “scared”, “peaceful”, and “powerful”. This activity broke the feelings and emotions ice a little bit and made sure that the teens knew what all of the emotions were.

The next step was to take the “Feelings & Emotions” die and give it a roll. Whatever emotion it landed on you had to talk about that emotion. For instance, if you rolled “angry” you had to make the statement, “At time when I felt angry was when ____________”. We went around the table repeating the process with the various teens telling us when they were scared, angry, happy, etc. The second activity allowed the teens to delve a little deeper into exploring their own personal feelings which allowed us transition into the next segment.

Moving out from the table, we all formed a circle with our chairs. Tony, our lead nurse volunteer, began the session by telling the teens to close their eyes and think about the time they found out that they were HIV-positive. As the kids bowed their heads and closed their eyes a very still silence settled over the room. When heads raised and eyes opened you could tell that this next part was either going to go really well or not at all.

Tony led off by asking if any of the teens wanted to share their story… no one volunteered. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes until one teen stood up and told her story. She spoke mostly in Setswana so I got only bits and pieces, but those bits and pieces were enough to make me want to cry. She told of living with her sister and going to get HIV tested. She told of how when she found out the news she couldn’t believe it. She continued on with her story but managed to stay pretty composed. She was a picture of stoicism that I hadn’t anticipated. She finished her story and sat down.

Tony asked if anyone else wanted to share. No one did. He called on another girl. She looked around, took a deep breath and stood up. She began to tell her story in English and this time I really had to actively fight tears from streaming down my face. She told of how she had been hospitalized twice as a child before she knew she was HIV+, how her mother had died and her father had “found a new woman” and because of the new woman left to go live with her aunt…and during that time is when she found out that she was HIV-positive. That was about as far as she got before she burst into tears, crying so hard that she couldn’t talk and had to sit down. I didn’t know what to do. My heart felt like it had exploded in my chest. I knew Teen Club would bring tough moments but watching a child cry over something that really, in my mind, is just so unfair was almost too much. I scooted a child over and let her cry on my shoulder – not knowing what else to do. She let the tears run and then faced the rest of the group; she had said all she could say.

Understandably, after that, no one really wanted to tell their story – I think many were afraid that they would react the same way, some not quite ready to articulate their stories. After a very heavy pause I ventured to take the discussion in a slightly different direction. With the help of a translator I spoke of how we all know that these stories are really hard to discuss because they hurt. However, the chances were that many of the teens had experienced the same feelings. I asked anyone who had felt sad when they found out their status to raise their hand, many did. I asked anyone who had felt angry when they found out their status to raise their hand, a good number did. I asked anyone who didn’t know what to feel when they found out to raise their hands, a few did. From there I was able to ask specific teens why they had felt angry, sad or confused.

One boy said that he felt angry at his mother for giving him HIV. I told them that was understandable and to not feel ashamed of that. One girl said that she wondered why her parents had her if they knew they were HIV-positive. I wondered to myself, “How do I really respond to that?” Some kids talked about sadness because they thought they would be different or alone. Some said that they were fine with it and meant it. Some said they were ok with being HIV-positive, but seemed reluctant to really express anything more. Some expressed hope and optimism due to their medications and support from others…some were still trying to get to that point.

We then transitioned to coping mechanisms. We talked about what we all did to handle our feelings when they got to be too much. One girl said she went to bed and cried, one said that she listened to her favorite music. One boy said he played sports, an adult volunteer said she ate food. We talked about the fact that being angry and sad is just not about being HIV+; it’s about life in general.

Having had all our emotions wrung out for the day we wrapped up the discussion and took a walk outside. It was meant as a time to clear heads and take some deep breaths. Then it was time for lunch.

We wrapped up Teen Club a little subdued but with everyone seemingly having put themselves back together. We wished one teen good luck since she was moving to another village at the end of the month and we parted ways.

I felt a little bad about having such a tough Teen Club but I knew in the long run that it would likely help a lot of these teens. One teen told me on Sunday that Teen Club had been hard, but it had been good. Very good. In the end, if the teens come out on top that’s all that matters and so through the tears and laughter Teen Club will continue one month at a time.