The deposits are paid, the bags are packed, and the kids are excited. You are about to take young people around the world (or across the country, state, or down the street for that matter) and you are responsible for the well being, health and safety of your group. What are some of the problems to avoid or prevent? Here are some tips that will keep your trip memorable for all the right reasons.
- Start the trip before the trip. Formation meetings before the bus leaves or the plane takes off are essential to communicate policies and procedures, but also to establish rapport. If you are traveling to Australia for World Youth Day and your package includes a few days of preparation before WYD festivities begin, understand that those days aren’t just about sightseeing. They give you an opportunity to build a community and a collective trust in the group that can smooth over tense moments when the stress level rises. Take advantage of this quiet before the storm to pray. The family that prays together stays together!
- Sleep is important. When traveling across time zones, we tend to feel the effects of “jet lag.” Teens (and adults) try to combat the sleep deprivation by over-using caffeine-loaded beverages. These drinks have the desired effect—they keep you awake—but they rob the body of its needed rest, and simply delay the crash. Try to be mindful of the schedule and build in mandatory rest. If at all possible, allow the first and last days of the trips to be light on content. Discourage the desire for many who want to pull the “all-nighter.” Sleep deprivation affects the body and mind very quickly.
- Is Billy off his Medication? Many young people have medication for ADHD, chronic illnesses or rescue medication (for asthma), and you may find that on trips they do not always remember to take proper dosages. Extended travel may also throw dosing schedules out of whack. Be sure to have a thorough health form for all participants that includes a list of all medications that the traveler takes. If you know a young person is usually medicated for ADHD, will they be medicated during your trip? Discuss any medication issues prior to departure. Just don’t collect health forms – read them and designate an adult leader to monitor intake. All the better if you can include a health professional on the trip, but at the very least you should know in advance the location of the nearest hospital or clinic.
- Keep an eye on your “Balloons.” Every group has a teen who just doesn’t pay attention, and usually one or two who want to break away from the pack. Losing a teen in a strange place is a nightmare and it takes valuable time away from the rest of the group. We refer to these lost sheep affectionately as “Balloons” (because of their tendency to float away). Keep your group together by assigning the “balloons” to chaperons who will keep a constant lookout for particular kids. When traveling in a large cluster, bookend the cluster with adults. If possible, ensure each group has a way to communicate with you at all times. Make sure each chaperon knows exactly who they are supposed to watch. Enforce check-in times and curfews. Have chaperons inform you immediately if someone is missing.
- Ensure a manageable adult-teen ratio. A rule of thumb in youth ministry is 1:7, but for special trips, a tighter ratio is preferred. In the event an adult is needed to accompany a teen to a medical tent at the closing Mass at World Youth Day (assume it will happen and be thankful if it doesn’t!), you’ll need to consolidate chaperons.
- Intense experiences bring out intense emotions. Be mindful that intense spiritual experiences can have a profound effect on teens and adults. Sometimes these experiences cause us to feel overwhelmed, mix in irregular sleep and eating patters, an unfamiliar environment, homesickness, etc. and you’ve got the recipe for an emotional meltdown. Be prepared to deal with these events by being a calm presence to those in need. Give them an opportunity to describe what they may be thinking or feeling. Understand previous painful events are often brought to the surface after intense experiences.
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate. More teens fall ill on extended vigils, camps, work trips, etc. because they simply do not drink enough fluids. Make sure they do. Water is always best. Even in places that are not particularly warm, kids lose fluids fast and usually don’t feel the effects of dehydration until it is too late. Watch for headaches, feeling flushed, feeling hot but not sweating. These symptoms can be serious. An easy (albeit gross) way to know if you are dehydrated is the color of your urine. Clear is good, bright yellow is bad. Make sure your travelers are drinking and provide water for those who are not.
- Know the chain of command. Anxieties run high during these trips. Now is not the time to engage in power struggles. Spend significant time in advance of the trip clearly delineating roles and the chain of command. One person should be designated as the main contact person to serve as the clearinghouse for information. This is not about power; it’s about efficiency and safety. That said, that person should not have to be in charge of everything! Outsource prayer experiences to one adult. Outsource food responsibilities to another. Still another adult coordinates travel details. Knowing roles in advance will prevent everyone from stepping on toes at the worst time.
- Communication. As an extension of knowing chain of command, young people should know who to call when any need arises. Conversely, all adults should be able to contact all youth if a need arises. Create a small cell phone list that can fit inside a name tag or wallet. If a teen does not have a cellular phone, pair him/her with a group that has one. Establish check-in points. It is not practical to expect large groups to stay together at events like World Youth Day, and sometimes teens will be outside the immediate presence of an adult. That being said, it is absolutely reasonable to know where all teens are at all times.
- Process. At the conclusion of each evening, and then again a week or two after the trip, take the time to process the experience. Start by addressing problems and concerns and then move toward the spiritual side of the experience. Allow for multiple ways of processing: an introverted teen might not raise his/her hand in a large group, but might write an amazing reflection. As best you can, make it a pledge to let go of any kind of anxiety before bed each night!
In four World Youth Days we’ve watched our tour guide bribe a Naples cop, a stressed out teen slug a nun and run around the block in his boxers, a teen go for a personal unannounced tour in France, a teen propositioned by a Swiss prostitute, numerous trips to medical facilities, and numerous many-mile walks across unknown lands. And we’d do it all over again! Nothing can prepare you for what you will experience on your trip, but you can prepare yourself in advance for when those crazy things do happen.
Go forth and we’re praying for you!