Here's what I've learned from kids. I first worked with kids at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. I was an art major attending a liberal arts college that required physical education the first semester. I didn't do any sports in high school, so I got hooked on running and swimming. Between that and running out of money, I quit smoking too. I took a PE class almost every semester of my nine-trimester college career. During my senior year, my WSI swim instructor talked me into teaching youth swim classes during the summer on Work Study. I didn't know a thing about kids, but I had tuition to pay.
The classes were fun. Parents showed up at a 1921 gymnasium on the southwest corner of the campus. I knew the gym well since I was in it almost every day. Some of us may have been in the pool plenty of nights too. Rebels and swimmers united. The head coach reviewed some details with the crowd while the kids fidgeted and stared at the pool. We taught 5-8-year-olds, almost all beginners, and some kids terrified of water.
I learned a couple of things about kids during those sessions. On one occasion, when I dipped a five-year-old underwater as part of the lesson, I soon knew how shockingly strong a kid can be. Lifting the kid above water he suddenly crawled up my arm, grabbed my neck, and bit my back—pure panic. I was amazed. Other kids threw up on me, cried a lot, and complained. But as the days passed, almost every kid got the idea every session. They crossed the deep end independently and dove off the curb without holding their nose, belly-flopping, or running back to mom.
The last day of the sessions was family day, the only day the parents could bring guests. On those days, with the bleachers full of family and friends, I would tread water in the deep end and have the kids show their back float skills. Quiet, relaxed, and dreaming of their little lives. Then they'd do some dives, and stand at the curb yelling for grandma to "WATCH THIS!" Finally, I'd tread water in the middle of the deep end again and have my class swim out to me. They'd all come out, hacking, splashing, treading water next to me, or touching my shoulder. When they got confident and settled, I'd duck under water 7 or 8 feet, only to look up at a dozen laughing, perfect little humans swimming away above. They were getting more robust, courageous, and happy right before my eyes. I fell in love with serving kids that summer. And guess what? The kid's parents, who bit my back, thanked me for not giving up on him and said he was better in the water than ever. You can never tell where influence counts.
My college advisor suggested I go into teaching many times during those years, but I wasn't interested. I can't say why, I just had another direction in my head.
In my mid-twenties, the North Oak Christian church pastor asked me to serve as a youth leader. I sat in my living room listening to him and one of the church members, trying to figure out what gave them any idea I was a good choice to lead other peoples' kids. I had been in a mosh pit until two am just the night before. Getting punched, spilling beer until we slipped in it, and pushing each other around like heathens. What were these people thinking? Then they mentioned a woman I had a crush on at the time, Christina, and said they asked her to serve the same youth group, to which she allegedly replied, "only if Jonas does too ." I didn't know what to believe, but it was starting to sound like I'd get to hang out with Christina more, so I said yes. We served those kids on Sunday mornings for a couple of years. We tried to teach them good habits without stifling their spirits, took them to a soup kitchen, and told them to have their parents bring donuts if they wanted them. We were real. We found ourselves in heartfelt conversations with their parents, doing our best, even without experience as parents of our own. In those years, I began to see value in myself in others' eyes. That church was full of people who said things that made me better and trusted me to love their kids.
When our kids attended Faxon Montessori School in Kansas City, the school nurse invited me to help with the Watch Dog Dad Program—a national program inviting dads to serve in public school. I signed up for one or two days a semester, showing up at the opening bell, picking up the teacher list, and staying for the day. When we moved to Kansas, I took the lead, and we started the Watch Dog Dad Program in two other schools the kids attended there. During these years, I saw the schools through the teachers' eyes. It's a lot of work. There are some severe challenges in teaching kids in today's world. Dads like me often found ourselves in the hallways helping kids with homework who may not have had the best home lives. I sat through math problems listening to some pretty weird shit little kids say sometimes. There are some challenging family situations out there. The gym teachers loved Watch Dog Dads. They always signed up for at least one hour for a dad to come in. We played dodgeball, ping pong, flag football, and basketball. Kids are rowdy. During those years, I got seven stitches in my forehead, fractured two ribs, tore the connective tissue on my sternum, and blew out a meniscus in my right knee. Never let them tell you you're too old to play.
During those eleven years, I learned that kids grow up in a world outpacing many families. Technology, culture, and society are dramatically shifting as kids find themselves in the middle. I learned that kids survive because they don't know any different. It's instinct, and they will get it done with or without good examples.
When my kids outgrew the school programs, one of them went on to race in Cyclocross. His mom drove him all over town, out of town, and several states away for three years. I helped by building a CX course in our backyard, so my son, his coach, and his teammates could practice their skills. That program started in 2010 and continues to this day, the Donderdag! Youth Cyclocross Clinics. For reference, look up a cyclocross race on YouTube. It's a demanding sport, the flower child of nice bikes and unpredictable weather conditions. This program has changed my life. For four months a year, leading 12-15 clinics, we have coached kids and their families through the ten essential skills of a CX race and race day events. For my part, I've watched kids bloom. I've seen kids in almost every imaginable state of physical, mental, and emotional presentation. All outdoors, in every kind of weather but lightning. The energy and inspiration from an annual four months of humans thriving, full of joy and courage, and ready for more have done wonders for my heart and mind. At the Donderdag! program, we deliver well-prepared families to the starting line, but our intention is to enrich their lives, to inspire them to love themselves. The sport of Cyclocross provides the playing field.
Recently I decided to expand some of the work I have been doing into serving kids and families beyond the Donderdag! program, and in addition to the historic home services I provide. I have written a talk I present to help solve the problem of youth physical, mental, and emotional health by empowering them to get outdoors. It's the most natural place I can serve my society. My job is to encourage kids and families to love themselves, trust the outdoors, GO!, experience their surroundings, and to live the thriving life they dream of. I've been experiencing and leading kids and families for years; now, I'm just taking it to your local stage.
American families face a barrage of challenges in today's world—all of them. The demographic doesn't matter. Almost everyone has challenges.
Let's get these kids outdoors. I'm here to help.