Group combines learning and service for NECD kids

By Katie Little
UNC Editor
the Durham VOICE

Vesall Nourani compares the middle-school years of youth to a ripe fruit tree bearing its first fruit. According to the Baha’i faith that guides his youth group, children reach a level of maturity at this age where they can act upon their beliefs.

Nourani’s group is a part of a program called the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. He explains, “The age of junior youth (12-15) is a crucial time of preparation both in the development of an individual’s character and in learning how to become an agent of change in community life. Given the importance of this transition into maturity, regarding the junior youth as strong contributors towards the advancement of community life allows them to step into that role.”

Five members of the junior youth empowerment group and its leader, Vesall Nourani, pose with the T-shirts they recently made. The kids are, left to right, Jovanny Rangel, Lurdes Davila, Prisciliano Trejo, Stuvon Snipes and Dejuan Owens. (Staff photo by Katie Little)

Nourani, an environment economics researcher for RTI International originally from Madison, Wisc., leads the United Youth, a junior youth empowerment group of eight junior youth in Northeast Central Durham.

The group, which meets on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons at 516C Eastway Ave., began in December 2008. The program is free for the children, who participate in fundraising activities to cover any costs, such as food expenses.

One of five in Durham, the group includes children who live in the Eastway Elementary vicinity. The program seeks to combine service to the community with readings designed to stimulate the children’s learning and provide them with the tools they need to develop positive attitudes.

“It’s not like one lesson or story is going to change their lives, but, over time, the process becomes evident in our interactions with them,” Nourani said.

One of the group’s teenage members, Lurdes Davila, said, “We get to have fun and be ourselves and change our attitudes – be positive.” She said participating in the group has helped steer her away from gangs and fighting.

Each group session begins with the children reading various prayers from different religious texts aloud. The program, which draws on Baha’i tenets, emphasizes the unity of all religions instead of focusing exclusively on a specific belief system.

Nourani first heard about the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program while he was an undergraduate student, majoring in political science and economics, at UNC-Chapel Hill two years ago.

“I saw some of my friends doing it in college, and I thought when I was in middle school I really could have used a positive place where I could perform service,” he said.

After graduating from UNC-CH in 2008, he decided to lead a group of his own. Group leaders (called “Animators”) receive training from The Ruhi Institute, which provides educational materials that apply Baha’i principles, and lead groups for three years.

Nourani’s drive to guide junior youth influenced his move to Northeast Central Durham.

“It turned out this ZIP code has the largest percentage of middle-school kids and has a lot of racial diversity,” he said. “There is a lot of positive energy in this neighborhood because of the revitalization efforts, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

After prayers, the children read a story with a central theme that will guide the meeting and then answer questions about the story. After the reading, Nourani quizzes the junior youth about certain words to ensure they comprehend the vocabulary, such as a recent discussion on the difference between the words “engraved” and “attached.” He said knowing the meanings of words helps the children contribute to the discussion. And he emphasizes that this activity is less of a “quiz” and more of a discussion.

Following the lesson, the children participate in activities that Nourani said he hopes will reinforce the day’s lesson. Previous outings have included a group hike and a visit to the police department.

The group recently designed T-shirts as one of its activities to teach economic skills. The children sold them to other group leaders in the area. So far, they have earned $136, which they will decide how to spend together. The group’s ability to collaborate and make the T-shirts is evidence of how much they have grown and matured, Nourani said.

When the group first began, creating T-shirts, which involves coordinating design, scientific and economic skills, would have been impossible, he said.

Another component of the program is service to the community. The children decide together how they will respond to local needs.

“Instead of telling the kids what to do, we try to guide the kids to come up with the needs of society and, based upon those needs, we come up with activities,” Nourani said.

During one recent visit to a retirement home, the children delivered Christmas cards.

One of the children, Jovanny Rangel, said he enjoys being in the group because it combines hanging out with friends and helping out the community.

“We get to do a lot of fun stuff,” Rangel said. “When I first started, we started cleaning the neighborhood.”

Nourani sees service as his obligation to the community.

“I think it’s my duty to help the junior youth in my community realize they play a role in the progress of our community,” Nourani said.

Editor’s note: There are four other Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program groups in Durham. They include:Cambridge Village (Located near Lowe’s Foods on Miami Blvd.) Meets Friday evenings and Saturday Mornings
McDougald Terrace (Across Alston from Campus) Meets Friday evenings and Saturdays
Cornwallis (Weaver Rd.) Meets Sunday afternoons
Franklin Village (1 mile north of Campus) meets Sunday afternoons

Nourani encourages individuals of all backgrounds to “animate” a junior youth group. “Animators” are typically (though not restricted to) older youth or young adults who can build genuine friendships with junior youth and serve as wise advisors to the group for up to 3 years. Currently, the Triangle branch of JYSEP is attempting to expand so that we may learn from the experience of other animators such as yourself. There are about 20 junior youth groups in the Triangle area, serving around 170 junior youth.

“We would like to invite all interested individuals to help animate one of the 5 junior youth groups in the vicinity of NCCU!” he says. ” If you are interested in further pursuing the path of becoming an animator, we would be more than happy to walk with you in this path of service by opening up a new street/neighborhood of junior youth to the program and engage in a two-part training sequence that will go hand-in-hand with the service you may choose to engage in in the neighborhood you select.”

Please contact: or 919-812-4766 to get started!

Ruhi Institute

Mapquest of group location:

Baha’i Web site

Junior youth spiritual empowerment

2 thoughts on “Group combines learning and service for NECD kids

  1. I am so impressed with this group of awesome kids and their spiritual empowerment; they are an inspiration. Keep up the great work, Vesall and Sally! Jock

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