Monday, June 08, 2015

OWL Access, Part 3 - Cooley

This is part of a four-part series on making OWL (Our Whole Lives) more accessible by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  Our first post shared the expense of OWL and the importance of OWL.  The second post, by Cynthia Landrum, explores the problems and work-arounds for one small congregation.  This third post, by Dawn Cooley, will explore how one congregation has successfully implemented OWL but still struggles to make it work. Our fourth and final post in the series will share some possible solutions.

The other night I was at a dinner to celebrate the newest graduates of our middle-school (MS) OWL curriculum.  It was inspiring to hear the kids talk about how they had grown as individuals and as sexually healthy people.  And the facilitators have my undying respect for guiding these kids through thick and thin on some of the most difficult issues the kids are currently facing: what does consent mean? what is sexual orientation? what is gender identity? how can we express ourselves in oppressive environments? how can we be good allies? how do we deal with social media in a healthy way? And so much more.

The Religious Institute says that one of the hallmarks of a sexually healthy congregation is that it offers comprehensive sexuality education at every age level.  I am proud that the 190-member congregation that I serve hits this marker.  By most measures, we have a very a successful OWL program.

I wish I could take credit for this, but I can't - the congregation had been sending people to OWL training for years before I got here six years ago.  They have sent 26 people in the congregation to one training or another.  Right now, however, only about 15 of these facilitators are active because people move, or they decide to invest their energies elsewhere, or they have to step back for a while.

This number may sound like a lot of facilitators, but let's break this number down.  Here is our 2-year class rotation, which we use to ensure that every child has a chance to attend in their age range:

Year 1: K-2 in the Fall, MS(7-9) in the Spring
Year 2: 4-6 in the Fall, HS (10-12) and Adult (combined with Young Adult) in the Spring

OWL requires us to have 2 trained facilitators in each classroom, each of a different gender.  Offering 5 levels of OWL means requiring at least 10 trained facilitators.  If we were to break out Young Adult and Adult, that would be 6 levels, requiring 12 trained facilitators.

However, for most of these sessions, if you only have 2 facilitators, this means that a) you can't do breakout sessions and b) the facilitators never get a break (which is especially important in the time-intensive MS program). So we try to have at least 3 trained facilitators in each class, along with some non-parent volunteers in children and youth classes who can help us live by our child safety policy of 2+ adults in the room for breakout sessions.  Suddenly, we are up to 15+ trained facilitators.

Now, we do have some duplicates. In fact, all our MS trained facilitators are also HS trained. However, 2 of them are parents of kids in the MS/HS range, meaning they are out of commission until their children age out.  This puts a burden on the rest of the MS/HS trained facilitators, because it means they have to teach every Spring. This is what most of these wonderful facilitators do: they give up any other volunteering and just facilitate OWL.

My DRE and I estimate that we need to be training 2-3 new facilitators every year so that we don't burn people out.  But getting training is not that easy.  It means straining our budget to come up with between $1000 - $3000+ depending on where the training is held. Since congregations schedule the training  themselves, there is no promise that there will be a training nearby that we can send people to.  And even then, we don't know if we will be able to line up suitable facilitators-to-be with the training dates available! Sometime the dates aren't announced far enough in advance for people to make the work and family accommodations necessary to allow them to attend. At one point, my DRE was looking at the OWL schedule and all the trainings on the schedule were for places to which she would have to fly, and she was weighing between Texas or Alaska.  Thankfully more trainings have since gone on the schedule, but there was no guarantee that this would happen.

Each year at these celebratory dinners, I hear both adults and youth testify to how OWL had changed their lives. It is one of the most life-saving, flagship programs that our faith tradition has, and yet it is so resource intensive that most mid-size or smaller congregations simply can't manage it. The congregation I serve does, barely, but it comes at a cost. Not all congregations can make the same choices we have made.


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