Key Ingredients for Connection from a Distance: What I’ve learned from facilitating virtual youth retreats
In the past month, I’ve run and co-run two retreats over Zoom for teens and pre-teens in the New England Quaker community. There were things we’ve been doing for decades that helped us be able to pivot gracefully into meaningful online connection, and there were even more things we tried out for the first time that worked. There were also quite a few challenges. I want to share what I’ve learned from these experiences in order to help others to create online gatherings that foster the real connection we so need right now.
Ingredients we already had:
A clear purpose for gathering. Each of our Quaker youth retreat programs has a stated purpose for why it gathers kids together: to be with their peer group, to support them in their spiritual development, to foster connection and joy. This purpose made it easier to then ask, how do we continue to fulfill this purpose, through a different way?
Warmth and welcome, said out loud. The first thing people say about our youth programs is how welcomed and accepted they feel when they walk into a room at a retreat. Since we’ve lost many of the tools we have to foster this sense of warmth and welcome in nonverbal ways, it becomes even more crucial to express that each participant belongs no matter what—out loud, over and over, and in a variety of ways.
Meet each other where we are. Coordinators and staff of our youth programs are practiced at listening for how the community is doing, identifying what their needs are, and being nimble enough to meet them with love and care as best we can while still sticking to our core purpose. The needs of our community members have changed drastically since the pandemic hit, and we’ve had to listen hard and reevaluate our priorities for gathering. Most of the time, this has meant zeroing in on a few top priorities (connection, meaning-making, joy) and let other things fall away. It has also meant being realistic about what’s possible: attention spans on Zoom are half as long, far more breaks are needed, and more structure is necessary to facilitate connections that would normally be easy in-person.
Show up fully, together. Quaker youth retreats are places where people can bring their full selves and feel a part of something bigger. On Zoom, it can be easy to just show up in front of your computer, but mentally and spiritually feel disconnected from the community. It’s even more important to have opportunities for checking in, expressing feelings and hopes, and having concrete ways to contribute to the group using our minds, spirits, and bodies. One example was for our short time of worship, we each brought a meaningful or sacred object with us to help us center, which we could share with the group. Another important piece was recognizing the needs of our bodies and building in plenty of time for breaks, movement, and playfulness.
New ingredients we discovered:
Hunger for connection. Youth wanted to be together more than ever. It made it easier to foster a sense of togetherness and person-to-person connection because that’s what everyone was showing up for, and they were eager to make it work.
Different ways to engage, throughout the gathering. During every portion of the gathering there were ways for youth to contribute and interact in a wide variety of ways. This was particularly important during whole group activities when we were typically all muted except for one speaker. We made full use of the chat function of Zoom to send in short thoughts and experiences, ask questions, and express feelings. We used journaling for personal reflection on the theme. We played simple, lively games like scavenger hunt, or did movement activities, or introduced our pets. We used enthusiastic hand gestures like silent claps and hugging ourselves to communicate agreement, joy, or love and to provide a sense of interactive closure.
Regular feedback. It’s tough to know what’s going on in participants’ heads on Zoom. To give staff and the coordinator a better sense of how activities were working for participants, we used frequent one word check ins in the chat, hand signals, and a short, simple feedback form where youth could submit feelings, needs, and suggestions at the end of every Zoom segment.
Small group connection, as much as possible. We used every available moment to get into small groups via breakout rooms, with lots of different kinds of connection in those groups. This included one-minute icebreaker questions; time for regular, confidential check-ins; playing games; debriefing content from program; answering discussion prompts; and choosing interest groups with different themes and activities. We made groups smaller than usual (3 to 6), group leaders took a bigger role in jump-starting conversation, and we left more time than usual, since it takes youth longer to warm up to each other over a virtual format.
Off-screen connection, too! A highlight of one retreat was a time for taking a walk outside while on the phone with a partner. The combination of movement, one-on-one connection, and something as simple and accessible as a phone call made this surprisingly special. Additionally, it was helpful to have opportunities for solitary activities in between times on Zoom, like making "warm fuzzies" to send to each other.
Trust in togetherness. As a coordinator, I lost much of my ability to witness the effects of our community-building on individuals. I had to trust that what we were doing was working its magic on each person on their end of the screen, even if I couldn’t see it. I had to have faith in our invisible, intangible togetherness.
Tech as a barrier. We found that a lack of adequate technology to use Zoom (especially with video) was the primary reason for youth not being able to fully participate in portions of retreats. Even though it’s possible to call in on a phone with just audio, the loss of the visual element creates a barrier between participants and singles out those without the tech they need. Additionally, this barrier often follows the same patterns of other forms of lack and oppression youth may already be experiencing. Some solutions that we found to partially work included having a designated IT staffer available to troubleshoot in the moment, supporting participants with tech issues before the gathering starts, and having multiple ways of connecting and participating available in case some options aren’t possible for every person.
Zoom fatigue is real. The kind of connection possible on Zoom is special and valuable for our youth to be able to see each other and connect easily, but it is draining. I’ve found for youth and adults it’s only possible for quality connection to happen on Zoom for one or two hours at a time (shorter the younger someone gets), and then we need at least a few hours in between calls during retreats to rest from screens and nourish our bodies and spirits in other ways.
There are things we can’t replace. Hugs, holding hands for grace and ending worship, group singing, so many of our favorite games, casual conversation bubbling up organically. We miss these things dearly because the loss of them reminds us that we’re not physically together, and it’s the physicality of these things that make them so special. So we acknowledge how hard that is, we embrace new and different ways of expressing togetherness, and we take good care of ours and each other’s bodies so that we may hug again.