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February 2010


The evolution of young people's groups in AA

IN parts of Southern California, it's not uncommon for 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year old boys and girls simply to walk into AA meetings. There are about 25 active young people's committees in California, busily showing thousands of young AAs that recovery involves service and having fun without drinking. Still, according to our latest membership survey, in 2007 only 2.3 percent of AA members were under 21 years old.

Although AA has long had young people as members, they usually weren't as young or as numerous as today. Co-founder Bill W. wrote about the first young person to join AA: "Then from another quarter we turned up with a prize. I guess this was the beginning of AA's young people's department. This new one, Ernie, had been a terribly wild case, yet he caught on very quickly to become AA number four." (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 73). Ernie was 30 years old at the time, July 1935, a scant month after co-founder Dr. Bob's last drink led to the formation of AA. The Big Book, published in 1939, states, "Several of our crowd, men of thirty or less, had been drinking only a few years, but they found themselves as helpless as those who had been drinking twenty years." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 33) Obviously, men in their 20s tried to get sober in our Fellowship during the 1930s.

Recently I flipped through some old national AA directories, looking for early young people's groups. I found a Cleveland, Ohio, "Young People's Group" from February 1945. In August 1946 the "Thirty-Five and Under Group" of Philadelphia, Penn., first appeared.

By February 1948, the National Directory included eight young people's groups in Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Diego (a men's group and a women's group), Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Young people's groups had been firmly established.

As a newcomer, I attended a "20-40 Group" for a while; people had to be between 20 and 40 years old to participate in the meeting.

At my first young people's convention, I somehow summoned the courage to ask a young woman I barely knew to dance with me on Saturday night. This was a slow dance, making my nervousness, sweating and clumsy moves even more noticeable. After enduring this for a while, she looked up at me ever so sweetly and said, "You're really very light on my feet!" We both laughed, and I got out of myself long enough to enjoy the rest of the evening. At that time, I never would have danced to unfamiliar music in a roomful of older people.

There is a large aspect of sociability in young people's activities, a much-needed counterweight to the isolation of alcoholism. But this only enhances their sponsorship and service work. And young people's conventions leave a positive impact in their wake. The energy surrounding the 1965 Long Beach ICYPAA led to a young people's clubhouse in the San Diego beach area. In 1971 a group from San Diego attended the ICYPAA in Reno, Nev., and upon their return started a young people's group that to this day routinely has 75 people at its Friday night meeting. The 1973 ICYPAA in San Francisco sparked the formation of ACYPAA. The 1983 ACYPAA committee in San Diego morphed into the Greater San Diego Young People in AA Committee.

Young AAs think nothing of driving 15 hours on Friday, sleeping en masse on someone's floor, attending a Saturday event, then turning around on Sunday and driving back in time for school or work. I've done it myself. Thus the young people's groups establish strong personal ties by speaking at each other's groups and supporting each other's activities. Now there are young people's AA conventions in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Sweden and other international locations. Europe is preparing to host its first young people's convention in 2010. Many young people in AA save their money and vacation time so they can travel to other states and countries to support their young people's activities. This state-to-state and now country-to-country sponsorship of young people's activities is in the best tradition of Twelfth Step work.

Members of young people's groups from the 1940s would likely be astonished at the extent of today's YPAA activities. I hope that 60 years from now, when today's young people are the white-haired elder states-men and women of AA, they, too, will be astonished by the ever-expanding, creative Twelfth Step work of new generations of young people.

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