Among the myriad of disheartening headlines concerning broken relationships pervading society today (i.e. sexual assault allegations, rates of domestic violence, surging cases of STD/STI infections, etc), there is hope. There is hope that the suffocating societal constraints that are set on today’s youth concerning how they appear physically might make way for a more holistic understanding of innate value; that victims of sexual assault might be able to start anew; that pornography use and rates of sex trafficking might be seriously impacted by efforts to reduce them, and that romantic and non-romantic relationships alike might provide individuals with peace, joy and acceptance. It is this hope which carries us into new classrooms week after week, and it is in this hope which I found assurance this past semester.
Relationships are powerful forces in our lives. The effects of broken relationships can be inexorable and heart-wrenching, as far too many people are keenly aware of today. But we also know there is another side to the story, the side that treats relationships with respect and which acknowledges their power to carry people through difficult times, to give a person reason to delight in a day which otherwise might seem dull, and to nourish a depleted soul. On our long drives to schools such as Onaga High and Council Grove, Shelby and I rejoiced in the relationships that we have around us. In the midst of the adoption process, she and her husband are preparing to open up their hearts to the miracle of a new child. And for me, I am learning what it means to fully love another person and put him first as I prepare to be married in July. These relationships, which we discuss often, along with many others in our lives, are riddled with some of the sweetest joys. We are so grateful for the power that they have in our lives, and it is our sincere desire that everyone would experience that kind of fulfillment in their relationships. But we know that this is not always the case.
Relate 360 teaches on sexual assault because we know that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn eighteen. We teach on STDs and STIs because doctors are expecting that in the near future every sexually active teen will contract HPV at some point in their lives, potentially leading to fatal health complications. We teach on the pernicious nature of pornography because a growing body of research continues to prove that it has devastating effects on individuals, relationships, and society. We teach on boundaries because we know that they are often violated when a young person doesn’t understand that they have the right to say no. We teach on these and many other topics because we know that relationships can often be very perplexing, but that education can be empowering. A beautiful thing about our job is that we get the privilege of clarifying some of the most confounding questions in our students’ lives.Their responses to our presentations often confirm that we speak directly to their many concerns.
We have had many students tell us about how little they thought they mattered because someone in their lives, instead of lovingly protecting them, stole from them their innocence. For those students, having someone speak on the realities of sexual violence in a compassionate and informative manner, was incredibly healing for them. They were given the resources necessary for getting help, and they were granted a new confidence in doing so. We have had young men and women alike comment on their pornography addictions, and about how they had previously felt ashamed and ensnared, but are now mindful of the lies which they were being sold, and are aware of the various ways in which they can get help. We have acted as listening ears and voices of encouragement for students who feared the possibility of having an STD or STI, and to our dismay, have watched them struggle with the acknowledgment that their past decisions might have lasting consequences on their health. They leave class empowered with the knowledge to make healthy decisions for themselves and for their future partners. We were broken by stories of students who, because of the misguided relationships they witness at home, did not know that relationships could actually be wholesome and fulfilling. They had previously only known relationships to be sources of pain and sorrow, but because of Relate 360, they were able to catch a glimpse of the same hope that keeps us going.
This past semester was humbling and enlightening. My eyes were opened to just how deeply our youth are yearning to hear someone speak worth into them, and to reassure them that relationships do not have to be like the unhealthy ones they often see around them. Unfortunately, we frequently see them searching in all the wrong places for answers to their hearts’ deepest longings, confused about how they are to balance ‘fitting in' with staying true to themselves, not forfeiting their own morals while still building relationships with their peers where they feel acknowledged, accepted, and valued.
In fact, the most frequent comment that we get from students at every single school that we speak to is that they are grateful that we talk about their value as a person, and that they are worthy of being loved. It is our greatest hope and our ultimate mission that they remember that, more than anything else. If they can truly embody the truth that they are of ineffable value, then we believe that they will not settle for relationships that are anything less than wholesome and fulfilling.
I am so thankful for what my first semester of working with Relate 360 has shown me; that honest and uplifting relationships are worth fighting for, and that there is hope in a broken world.