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Youth Groups: A Home with Satellite Branches

Remember the time it was December and we were looking for blueberries in Hungary? We were two Americans, a German and a Dutchman, piled into a car singing refrains from “Les Miserables.”

Most of the great stories in my life are told among teenagers. And they always start with the most beloved of words: “Remember the time we…?”

Remember the time we slept out under the stars in a Montana field? We woke up covered in dew, lazily contemplated by curious cows.

These memories always happen within the context of a youth group.

Remember the time we were lost in Wageningen, The Netherlands, and spent two hours looking for a movie theater? We were rescued by a random restauranteur in a Jeep, who later served us the best tomato soup after our half-watched movie.

A Third Culture Kid myself, I know well the rhythm of being the perpetual new kid.  Thirteen times I changed schools, a process which often exacerbates an already tumultuous teenage experience.  Normally a drama club junkie, my big rebellion after moving in the eleventh grade was to be quiet.  To not make any friends.  To not get involved.  Trying to explain myself (again) was too tiring. I was done.

My refuge became my youth group friends and leaders at church.  Although they didn’t quite “get” me, they accepted me, and countless moves later, remain some of my closest friends. My fondest high school memories revolve around youth group games, antics, trips, and camps.

Remember the time we thought it was a good idea to go canoeing, despite a drought, in a riverbed of rocks thinly covered with muddy water?

Through youth groups, I got a taste of community life, and saw the beauty of investing in one another. I saw what love, lived out, looks like. Almost without realizing it, I began to spend my life doing the same.

A youth group, religious or community-based, is a group engineered to be inclusive.  A healthy one makes those on the outside feel a part of the inside.  The beauty of youth groups for TCKs is that it invites them into something which is bigger than themselves.  In the case with many religions, it’s like realizing you’re the member of a great family which began long ago and will carry on long after you are gone.  The rituals and routines are so similar that songs learned in Hong Kong can be sung in Brussels, the liturgies and prayers picked up in New York ring just as familiar in Johannesburg. It’s a home with satellite branches.

As a youth group leader, I worked with teenaged orphans in Albania (Remember slumber parties on Christmas Eve, waking up to presents and waffles in the morning?), refugees in Chicago (Remember Afghan middle-schoolers still fighting jet lag  on their first roller coaster ride?), expat TCKs in Germany (Remember singing “The Final Countdown” in the last stretch of a 27-hour bus ride to Romania every year?).  If they were angst-ridden and wanted to talk, I was ready to listen. And bake them cookies.

Looking back, I don’t know what my life would have been without them — I would have missed out on some of my most cherished moments. The only way I’ve ever known to work with teens is to make them family. They may grow up and both of us may move, but distance and time never get in the way of a phone call or text when they need to talk, or cry, or laugh. I learned that investing in other people is always worth the effort. Loving is always worth the risk.

A year ago, I moved back to the States from Dusseldorf, Germany. It was a difficult adjustment for me. I fought culture shock in a place that should have fit, the knees of my heart buckling whenever I thought of those I missed scattered across the globe. As a new youth group leader, I tried to connect with non-TCK American kids, but it proved to be extremely frustrating for me.

I hoped I would find a TCK or two who would “get” it along the way. When one finally popped up, the world felt normal again, we quickly set up a satellite home and every week, now, we discuss parents, friends and life. Cookies are involved.

Remember the guy next to us at Starbucks who kept increasing the volume on his computer, trying to drown out our giggled reminiscing of Turkish delicacies?

The German, Dutchman, American and I, singing “Les Miserables,” found blueberries in December. We were a part of a youth group traveling to Romania and bearing gifts and bringing Christmas to dear friends who served the poorest of the poor in gypsy villages.

That whirlwind trip was one of the richest experiences of my life. With youth groups, I’ve gained treasured memories, an ever-expanding family, and the right to begin so many conversations with, “Remember the time…?”


  1. I’ve been doing youth work for over 11 years, half of that with TCKs (in Beijing, China). I can’t imagine going “home” to a “normal” life anymore. I know I’m biased, but I love my kids and love working with/for them.

    The “remember the time when…” thing is so powerful. As is facebook as a medium for those joint remembering.

    I remember the time that the tractor ploughed through our buried treasure…
    I remember the time that someone took over our playing field…
    I remember the time we crawled through the lunch leftovers…
    I remember the time we broke plastic spoons playing cards…
    I remember the time the “cars” DVD stopped 5 minutes from the end…


  2. Josh Martinez says


    I am doing research on third culture kids, specifically the impact of the moves. I personally have lived outside the United States from age 3 until age 16. Returning back to the US has been challenging for me. Would you be willing to have a 30 minute interview with me so I can capture your perspective on the impact of living abroad?



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