By Mary Stewart Robins
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
It is not every day that you see a group of minority youth armed with cameras and paired with a college student, taking pictures of rocks, trees and cracks in the pavement.
Friday Oct. 1, a group of Carrboro Karen and Hispanic kids, ages 11 to 15 met with students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to learn about photography.
With the help of the college students, the kids were given the task of finding and taking pictures of alphabet letters found in nature. The alphabet photo-scavenger hunt is one of many enriching activities in which the Carrboro “Super” Junior Youth Group participates. This junior youth group is one of 20 groups in the Triangle which meets weekly, with the goal of empowering kids to make a difference.
These junior youth groups started around nine years ago by members of the Bahá’í faith in the community. Today, the groups consist of 90 percent non-Bahá’í youth of varying ethnicity and are led by pairs of individuals called animators, according to Mark Perry, a part-time lecturer of dramatic arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Perry and his wife Azi Perry animate the Super Junior Youth Group. He said they refrain from calling themselves teachers, aiming to be on the same level as the kids they lead.
The group focuses on four main aspects: prayer, study, socializing and service.
“One of my main goals is to build unity and community, Perry said. “This age is particularly susceptible to change for the better. We can direct them towards service to humanity and towards integrity.”
The majority of the kids in the Super Junior Youth Group are among the 500 Karen refugees in Carrboro. The Karen people are originally from Burma. However, many were forced flee to Thailand refugee camps when the Burmese military drove them out of the country. Before coming to the US, many of the junior youth group kids spent most of their life in these refugee camps, according to Perry.
The Perrys are currently using a book titled “Glimmerings of Hope,” which narrates the story of a young African boy, Kibomi, who witnessed his parent’s murder by Rwandan soldiers in an ethnic-cleansing campaign. Kibomi is tempted to join a rebel army and seek revenge, but instead chose a life of hope, rather than despair.
Because many of the Karen youth have faced ethnic-cleansing within their own families, this book is especially relevant, said Perry. “When we read the story together in June, the kids were absolutely attentive. With 25 people in the room, there was not a sound. The idea of choosing hope over despair, I think, became clear to them as a life-choice.”
When the kids meet on Saturdays at Carolina Apartments, they start with music and prayer. Though the group began based in the Bahá’í faith, the animators encourage non-denominational spiritual growth.
Perry said he and his wife support “making everyone feel welcome and allowing everyone their own personal opportunity for expression.”
The kids determine the types of social and service activities they participate in; from sports, to art projects, to field trips. Pwe Moo, 12, a member of the Super Junior Youth Group, said, “I like it because sometimes we get to go hiking and to other places.”
For service projects, they have cleaned up the streets of Carrboro and raised money for a Guatemalan school in October 2009 and for Haiti in April 2010.
Elizabeth Tun, 16, has been with the group for three years and has also helped lead the junior youth. “What I like about the group is that every Saturday we meet and talk about what we can do to help the community.”
The Super Junior Youth Group also mixes with other junior youth groups in the community. They interact through sporting events, cookouts and movie nights.
Since other groups in the area are made up of mostly Hispanic kids, Perry said these mixers are especially important in helping bridge ethnic gaps.
Because of the devastating experiences many of the people have faced, the Karen culture can foster a natural shyness, according to Perry. However, over the past eight years, the kids have opened themselves up to the Perrys and have come out of their shells. He said that by focusing on service and universality, he and his wife have instilled in the youth an appreciation of humanity beyond the reserved tendencies of the Karen culture.
“We want to come into a community and empower that group to save itself from disunity, from isolation, from cynicism,” Perry said.