When you think of the term community, you immediately think of a group of people who share more similarities than differences. The similarities that define a community or group of people are usually along the lines of ethnicity, race, or, perhaps, religious affiliation. Imagine a community whose members have more differences than similarities, one that is a diverse group of people that transcends racial, cultural, and religious boundaries, but is united by the goal of doing good for humanity. I am proud to be a part of this community by participating in a group called Westchester Youth Alliance (WYA.) WYA is a local interfaith, volunteer-driven youth organization that meets on a monthly basis to engage in a variety of service projects ranging from Midnight Runs to help feed and clothe New York City’s homeless, to local housing rehabilitation trips and projects to assist families who have simply fallen on hard times or whose homes have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy and other recent storms. The beauty of being a member of such a unique group is that we are united by the desire to care for others. The last thing on the mind of any WYA member is the fact that the person shoveling dirt and debris next to you worships in a temple or a mosque or looks or dresses in a certain way. When you’re among like-minded peers, united in service, the person next to me isn’t a Muslim, Catholic or Jew, they’re a neighbor in the community, a neighbor I’m glad to have.
High School Senior
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah
My son is a high school junior, and has been participating in Youth Alliance programs since its founding when he was a freshman. He and I were recently speaking with another high school student and parent, and he made a remark that really struck me. We were talking about the significant extent of religious tolerance among students in Westchester high schools, and he made the observation that to the extent such tolerance exists, it is generally rather superficial. He said that he had considered himself pretty open and accepting of others, but that through Youth Alliance activities that understanding and acceptance has become much deeper. The specific example he cited was having the opportunity to visit the Upper Westchester Muslim Society’s place of worship, to witness them praying, and then being able to engage in a dialogue with Muslim students and adults about what their religious practices mean to them… In his experience, it moved him from a place of having stereotypes that were generally positive in nature to having a sense of first-hand knowledge and appreciation. A fundamental change of perspective. (He expressed it much more eloquently.)
A WYA Parent
My son does a lot of volunteering with various groups, but WYA is one of his favorites. He loves the diversity of the team and the various causes WYA has chosen to support. There is always a take back or life lesson to be learned on any of these outings. On one particular work trip to Staten Island he recanted the story of one family that made a decision to stay put during hurricane Sandy because they went through hurricane Irene the previous year unscathed. It proved to be a fatal decision that cost the lives of the husband and daughter. It was a decision that he saw any of us could easily make especially someone young without life experience. Good stuff, not only do they learn some useful skills, but more importantly it makes them think too.
A WYA Parent