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Young People's Beginning Experience


Amanda Bauer, once a participant in the Young People´s Beginning Experience, is now a team member for it.


This weekend retreat for children of divorced, separated or widowed parents helps teens cope with their anger and grief.

By Jeanne Schaefer


 An Effective Retreat

 A Supportive Environment

 Improved Communication

 Participants Reunite

 An Expanding Ministry

 ‘It Opens Their Eyes’

By now, divorce has touched the lives of many people in the United States—either directly or through a friend or relative. For a child or teenager, divorce can rip apart a comfortable home, leaving behind guilt, anger and depression.

Today, a ministry devotes its time to help children of divorce. Called the Young People’s Beginning Experience (YPBE), the program offers an oasis for 12- to 21-year-old children of divorced, separated or widowed parents. It centers around a weekend retreat in which teens relax, reflect and share their experiences with others. YPBE developed from Beginning Experience (BE), a Catholic program which helps divorced, separated or widowed adults through the grieving process of losing their marriage.

Beginning Experience began in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1974 with Sister Josephine Stewart, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. As director of family services, she was responsible for her parish’s Marriage Encounter program. To better understand the program, she attended a Marriage Encounter retreat. She brought a divorced friend, Jo Lamia, with her.

A major part of Marriage Encounter is the dialogue between couples. Sister Josephine and her friend decided to answer the questions in the dialogue between themselves. Jo had such a revealing experience that she and Sister Josephine decided something of this nature should be started for the divorced and widowed. That was the seed of Beginning Experience.

“The idea,” says Emelia Alberico, BE executive director, “is to look at the grieving process as it affects [people who are] divorced and widowed and find out by your own personal reflection how far along you are in that grieving process or if you’ve finished it and want to put the pain of the past behind you.”

Designed by and for Catholics, Beginning Experience has its roots in Catholic tradition and the sacramental life of the Church. A reconciliation service is held on Saturday night and a liturgy is celebrated on Sunday. But from its beginning, BE has been open to people of all faiths. The weekend, which can be held at campgrounds or retreat centers, is patterned after the Marriage Encounter process, with presentations, reflection, writing and sharing in a small group.

Once parents began to experience the growth and healing of the BE retreat, they realized their children needed a similar program. That’s how the Young People’s Beginning Experience weekend retreat evolved.

An Effective Retreat

Amanda Bauer, a junior at the University of Cincinnati, first attended the YPBE retreat when she was 14, the same year her parents were divorced. “I didn’t want to go at all,” she said. “I thought it was just some stupid, cheesy retreat with a bunch of teenagers. My mom went on the one for adults. When she came home, she was a mess. She was crying all the time. So I didn’t want to go, but Mom said, ‘You’re going, no questions.’

“That’s how most of the people are,” Amanda points out. “Most people I know don’t want to go at all.” But once they do attend, the retreat seems to be effective. In fact, each retreat is run by a team of past participants. Since being part of that first retreat, Amanda has helped organize four others.

Five to 10 teens, known as the team, and an adult coordinator organize the retreat. The team begins the retreat by reading talks they’ve written about their experience with divorce or the death of a parent. Talks involve topics like how the loss of their parents’ marriage has affected them, their family and their relationship with God. After each talk, participants write in a journal and discuss their own feelings and experiences in a small group.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things to do,” says Amanda, “to finally talk about it, to admit that you’re angry, hurt and upset, and that you don’t know what to do or what’s going to happen.”

The retreat also includes meditation, games, music and Sunday Mass. Amanda describes one of her favorite parts of the retreat as a group meditation. “It’s crazy, to be sitting there with your eyes closed and suddenly realize there are all these people in the room, going through the same thing you are. They are actually friends. They genuinely care about you. They want to help you and want to make you feel better.”

A Supportive Environment

The new responsibilities and emotional drain of a parents’ divorce, compounded by the usual pressures of school, extracurricular activities and friendships, leave little time and energy for a teen to confront and deal with his or her new family situation.

“When my parents got divorced,” explains Amanda, “my dad moved out and my mom wigged out for a while. She couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t remember anything. She couldn’t function. I had to watch my little sister, make sure meals were on the table, remind my mom that we had practice. I pretty much did everything. And I didn’t have time to realize how mad I was, how angry and depressed. I was still in denial that the whole thing was going on but, at 14, I had to grow up quickly and take control of my sister.”

To handle family, social and scholastic responsibilities, a person commonly locks emotions away so that he or she can concentrate on more immediate problems. The YPBE retreat offers a supportive environment where teens can let out those feelings and deal with them.

“It’s a way to realize that there’s a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions and a lot of anger that you didn’t realize you had,” says Amanda. “Recognizing all these things that I was thinking and feeling, realizing that there were other kids who went through the same things and who were having the same hard time that I was, it was like a starting point. It made me realize that it wasn’t the end of the world and things weren’t going to come crashing down on me.”

Now Amanda understands the need for recognizing and expressing emotion when going through the grieving process of either the death of a parent or a parents’ divorce. “Be upset, be hurt, be angry, be depressed, but realize what’s going on. I think a lot of people don’t like being angry at people. I understand; I hate being mad at people. But it’s O.K. In a situation like that, it’s normal. It’s good to be angry, to be upset, to be depressed, to be mad. Express it! If it’s crying, if it’s punching a stuffed animal, slamming a bat on the bed or talking to somebody, whatever you ought to do, you have to do it. It’s human nature to go through all these stages and emotions. You have to let yourself do it, because if you don’t, it’s more pain. It hurts you longer if you don’t. If you deny all your feelings, it’s a lot more painful.”

Improved Communication

Another advantage of the retreat is that it brings together kids who have had similar experiences. Amanda explained that none of her friends had been through a parents’ divorce. She didn’t know who to talk to or where to turn for support. YPBE introduced her to kids in the same situation and, after the emotional intensity of the retreat, they became good friends.

“It’s something that even a year or two down the road, you can call someone from this retreat, one of the friends that you’ve made, and talk to them about something,” says Amanda. “Maybe you got into a huge fight with your parents—that person would be the first to understand it. They would be the first to know what you’re going through.”

While the retreat strengthens friendships, it also strengthens ties to parents. After the retreat, says Amanda, “It’s easier to talk to your parents because it focuses your frustration, anger and depression. You know what it is that you have to say to your parents or what questions you would like to ask them. It doesn’t make it any easier to tell them, but at least you know a place to start.”

Participants Reunite

There aren’t any sessions building up to or following the retreat, but there is a reunion about three weeks later where participants gather to have fun. They play games, eat snacks and talk about their experience.

“Once you go back to your family, or to wherever you’re living at the time, it’s really hard,” explains Amanda. “You come out of these retreats and you’re just a mess. You’re insane. It’s hard to get back into civilization. At the reunion we talk about that and if anyone’s talked to their parents and whether things are going better.”

After the retreat and the reunion, things still aren’t perfect. Kids still have to deal with conflicts like how to celebrate holidays or a parent’s changing social life.

One stress point that Amanda mentioned was having to visit her dad on weekends. “I hated it,” she says. “It was nice to spend time with my dad, but I wasn’t with my friends and I wasn’t at home. I was in his place, a dumpy little apartment. It was hard to feel like I was at home. Then, once I got my own car, I didn’t spend much time with my dad. I felt really bad about it. He wanted to spend time with me, but I didn’t. I was trying to be a cool teenager, hanging out with my friends or going to see movies. There were a lot of problems between us that I had a hard time talking to him about, but eventually we did start to talk.”

In spite of difficulties, Amanda stresses the importance of talking to parents. “You can’t just rebel and play tricks on them,” she says. “You have to at least tell them what’s going on and do it in conversation. You can’t yell, you can’t just run away, you have to try to talk to them.”

The same advice goes for parents. “It’s hard for parents, but they have to realize that their kids are struggling, too,” says Amanda. “They need to give kids the attention they need. Talk to them, let them know that they are loved. Be honest with them about what is going on.”

One advantage of Beginning Experience is that, having programs for adults and children, families can benefit from each other’s retreat experiences. “My mom had been on the retreat,” Amanda points out, “so it was easier to talk to her. I could relate to her.”

By helping families like Amanda’s, BE fulfills its mission of facilitating the resolution of grief and promoting healing for divorced, separated and widowed individuals and their children by helping people to love themselves, others and God.

An Expanding Ministry

The first Beginning Experience retreat weekend was given by Sister Josephine and Jo Lamia in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1974. Today, with 145 teams worldwide, BE is still expanding. There are 96 BE teams in the United States and Canada, plus teams in England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. “We’re working on a team in Singapore and perhaps one in Hong Kong,” explains Alberico. “We’re also hoping to broaden our expansion of the ministry into Spanish-speaking countries.”

In addition to YPBE, two other youth programs were developed from BE. The BE Children’s Weekend for ages 6-14, the Young People’s Beginning Experience Weekend for ages 12-21 and the Young Adult Beginning Experience Weekend for ages 18-25 are all adaptations of the BE weekend (the specific age range may vary in some areas). BE also offers support groups for adults and children.


Those who attend the weekend retreat discuss their feelings and experiences in a small group and write personal reflections in a journal.


To establish one of the children’s programs, Alberico says, “The adult team has to be strong enough to have enough team members who are dedicated and committed to the youth programs. We don’t have that many YPBE teams throughout the United States, but those that we do have are flourishing.”

Anyone interested in starting a BE team must contact the ministry center to receive the booklet, The Beginning Experience: What It Is and How to Establish the Program. Then, a training team is assigned by the executive director to form the new team which has several “pilot weekends” to become pre-certified. Next, the team develops bylaws and guidelines. The process may take two to three years.

‘It Opens Their Eyes’

Alberico, who has been the executive director for three and a half years, understands the grief the divorced and widowed endure. She was widowed, with nine children, when she was 41. She remarried and then divorced. “At that time,” Alberico explains, “I was in such terrific pain, from both losses, that I needed something to help myself. I went to a BE weekend and became transformed.”

She strongly recommends the retreat weekend to anyone who is widowed, separated or divorced. “It will help immeasurably,” she says. “It will change your life for the better and you can look forward with renewed enthusiasm.”

Amanda has similar advice for kids. “I recommend the retreat,” she says, “because it helped me a lot. It’s probably the most influential thing that I experienced during the whole divorce, the thing that helped me the most.

“I know a lot of kids are reluctant to go on the retreat, but it’s a new experience and you have to be open,” Amanda advises. “For a lot of people, it can’t get much worse than where they are. They might as well try something to help them out. A lot of people would be surprised. By the end of the retreat, people change. It opens their eyes a lot.”

For more information, please contact: Beginning Experience, Ministry Center, 1209 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226. Telephone: 313-965-5110. E-mail: Or visit the Web site:

Jeanne Schaefer, from Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote this article during her internship at St. Anthony Messenger. A 1999 graduate of the University of Dayton, she majored in English. She intends to pursue a year of service.

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