Our Kids in the Zoom Era

By Barbara Michelman

When stay-at-home orders went into effect across the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area this past March, and in-person church services were cancelled as a result, Dumbarton clergy and staff didn't stop working. They quickly pivoted to deliver Sunday worship and related programming across digital platforms such as Zoom.

Dumbarton's Youth and Children's Minister, Jeehye Kim Pak, said that using Zoom for weekly youth group meetings actually increased participation--because the youth members could easily log in from the comfort of their own homes.  

"Zoom is such a great platform for being able to see everyone's faces and stay connected, and the kids were already so comfortable with using this medium," said Kim Pak. "It was really important for me to create a place where they felt safe, important, and were able to have fun."

"Everyone has been experiencing their own pandemic- and/or social isolation-related anxieties. I wanted to bring our youth a sense of peace and love--to let them know that Dumbarton really cares about them."

Kim Pak kicked off each weekly gathering by encouraging youth group participants to share something about how their week was going, asking them what it's like navigating life during a pandemic, and wondering how they were transitioning to online schooling. She then would introduce an interactive ice breaker activity or game that could be played via the Zoom platform, which she said helped everyone learn more about each other's personalities, humor, and wit.

The hour-long gathering just "flies by," she shared. Weekly highlights include getting to see each youth member's pets, welcoming new members such as Rev. Rachel Cornwell's middle and high school-aged children, and hearing family members going about their daily lives in the background.

"We are bringing 'church' to where they live, which is an important aspect. Church happens wherever we are," she said.

 

Kim Pak credits some of the success of the online youth group to the support she's received from Dumbarton members such as Doug Milewski and Barby Morland, both of whom volunteered to participate in the Zoom gatherings. Milewski and Morland have long functioned as "second adults" during in-person youth gatherings, as part of the UMC's Safe Sanctuary policy which mandates that two adults must always be present when working with children and youth.

"I'm grateful to the participation and support of members like Doug and Barby," she said.

Morland has undertaken additional activities to engage Dumbarton youth, such as mailing postcards to them.

"That's something we normally would not have done. In the past Barby would have just said, 'See you next Sunday!'"  

Ava Michelman, who participates in the weekly youth group Zoom gatherings, acknowledged that "Zoom does take away some of the value of interpersonal communication. You lose the fellowship and community by being in the same space, but Zoom is a much better platform for learning. When Jeehye wants to share something with us, she just shares her screen instead of trying to rotate her laptop for everyone to see when we are in the same physical space."

"I'm glad that youth group has continued," Michelman said. "We've played a lot of games together, so that's been fun, but I'm looking forward to getting back to in-person worship."



Kim Pak has been using Zoom to deliver programming for at least four months now, and she readily admits that it's still a work in progress, figuring out how best to use the platform to keep Dumbarton youth engaged. She's also thinking about what lessons she can apply, from this time of continued social distancing to in-person programming when Dumbarton reopens its building.

"Maybe we don't always have to meet in person," she mused. "Maybe we could switch it up, holding one youth group in person, another one on line. Finding the time for in-person gatherings is always so hard for us. Everyone lives in different states. Platforms such as Zoom can continue to be used even when we are back together."

Zoom gatherings seem to be more successful for middle- and high school- aged kids than for Dumbarton's younger children, Kim Pak learned. In-person church gatherings tend to be much easier for younger kids because they have access to the nursery and the playground, and have other children with whom to play.

Over the summer Kim Pak created a prayer-led scavenger hunt activity for Dumbarton's children who are in the intermediate Sunday School class. She asked them to "find something alive, like a plant, and then we gave thanks for nature. I also asked them to run around and find specific things in their house. It was a lot of fun."

For Easter, Kim Pak used approved phots that she already had of the children, such as on the church Facebook page, to create a collage for a postcard that she mailed back out to all the children "so that they could remember who we are, and to know that we love them and think of them still."

 

The weekly schedule of sessions is being adjusted to meet school schedules. For more information, contact the church office at dumbartonpasrtor@yahoo.com or 202-333-7212.