“I am a mountain! I am a tall tree! O-o-oh, I am a vision; I can see clearly!
Tiny arms and hands waved all around me as two hundred voices sang – practically shouted – the lyrics to “The World’s Greatest,” arguably the most coveted and joyous part of every Teen Club meeting. For those three minutes – or rather, 6, or 9 minutes, depending on how many times we hit “repeat” – those children soar. They are a mountain, and a tall tree. For those brief moments, they can see clearly.
The potential of Teen Club had always been obvious to me, ever since I first started attending as a volunteer in August 2009. I arrived on that first chilly, sunny Saturday morning to find a huge number of children outside Baylor clinic spilling onto the lawn, playing games, shouting, and laughing with each other. There were some clusters of children who seemed to be inseparable, and others who floated without direction around the yard, some observing and some taking part in the games, but not seeming to truly belong to any one group. They seemed to be having fun, but the structure was not quite there yet. It was like having all the ingredients to a wonderful recipe, but leaving them unassembled and unorganized on the kitchen counter.
Since that time, a lot has changed. With each Teen Club meeting, there is more structure; more empowerment of the children who come; more meaningful interaction between volunteers and participants; and a specific learning goal for each meeting. There are more volunteers, and everyone knows what he or she is supposed to be doing. Everyone has a role to fill, and the details of the day are never overlooked. There are orderly lines. Spreadsheets. A picture ID card for each child. Things seem to flow more and more seamlessly each time I attend.
But as much as these improvements have helped maintain the sanity of the volunteers and administrators, the true impact can be seen at a much more important level: that of the children who make up the Teen Club.
“Who are your biggest supporters?” I asked a group of eight or so children who were huddled around me for a discussion. The theme of the day was the importance of building meaningful and supportive relationships, and we stood outside in the soft breeze after completing a larger group activity.
“My mother,” offered one soft-spoken young girl, gazing up at me with serious eyes. “Friends,” whispered another girl as she tugged the sleeves of her shirt over her hands, her eyes darting around the circle and then to the ground. “Teachers,” said a little boy after shyly raising his hand to speak.
“It’s you,” said one of the older boys, looking at me and then around the courtyard at the other volunteers. “It’s our aunties. You are our biggest supporters.”
During another session, we had gone around in a circle to discuss different emotions. The children took turns rolling “emotion dice,” and they told the group about a time when they had experienced the emotion that they rolled. Unfailingly, every child who rolled “happy” said that they are happiest when they are at Teen Club, their faces lighting up as they spoke. Some even described their “sad” times as the time they spent not in Teen Club.
These children are not merely experiencing positive emotional gains from attending Teen Club; they are also learning. They are learning about supportive relationships, good nutrition, the importance of drug adherence, disclosing their HIV status, and peer pressure, to name a few. And beyond that, they are discovering how to express themselves creatively.
“I am Dr. Garlic!” shouted one girl as she strutted down the makeshift runway of our Nutrition Fashion Show. I looked at her, slightly shocked at the transformation. In our smaller group session for the older youth just an hour earlier, she had been shy and soft-spoken, barely audible. Now, her voice rang out clearly, even over the murmur of the crowd of children. “If you eat me, you will stay very healthy. And by the way, if you are HIV positive, eat two cloves of me per day to help fight off new sicknesses!” The applause from the crowd almost pre-empted her big finish and she sailed back to her place in the crowd, her grin practically taking off from her face. Incidentally, she was crowned Ms. Nutrition later that day, defeating Hot Meat, Perfect Pizza, and Awesome Apples by a narrow margin.
While walking to town from work one day, I ran into one of the girls who attends Teen Club every month on her way home after school. We caught each other’s eyes as she walked towards me, and I smiled at her and waved. held out my hand, and she grasped it with hers, pressing my thumb with her own in the Swazi style as we greeted each other. “I’ll see you on June 19?” she said with a hint of question in her voice, peering up at me.
“Absolutely,” I said. “I will see you then.” She gave me another shy smile and then continued on her way down the hill. I watched her retreat. June 19 was still weeks away, but the date was etched into her mind.
And that is what Teen Club means to these children.
“I’m that star up in the sky; I’m that mountain way up high; hey I made it! I’m the World’s Greatest. I’m that little bit of hope, when my back’s against the ropes. Hey I made it – I’m the World’s Greatest.
Every month, the voices swell around me as they sing, and feel, the lyrics. Every single adult sings – and dances – along with the kids. The song ends, and the split second of silence that followed is immediately drowned out with hundreds of desperate pleas to play the song just one more time.
It is difficult to describe just how that song makes us feel. But the beauty of Teen Club is that there, every single person, whether adult or child, can be the world’s greatest, and can soar out of themselves for those minutes and hours and experience true, unmitigated joy, no matter how brief or fleeting it may be.