Church Encourages Members Worldwide to Serve Locally

  By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events

  • 27 September 2012

The Church is encouraging members to find opportunities to serve in their own communities, as these members in Chile did in 2010, when they gathered materials and packaged thousands of hygiene kits following a massive earthquake that devastated their country.

In the last year or so, the Welfare Department of the Church has placed a renewed emphasis on reaching out to local communities. Specifically, members are encouraged to look at local needs before sending materials to the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City.

The Humanitarian Service section of LDS.org, under “What You Can Do,” suggests that those interested in doing humanitarian service look around their communities: “What needs or challenges do you see or hear about?” it reads. “If you identify a need in your community but cannot find an established program that addresses this need, take the initiative to find a solution.”

Sharon Eubank, director of Church humanitarian services, explained that while the Church’s Humanitarian Center will continue to accept donations, “there has been more focus on members around the world being involved in giving aid in their own communities.”

There are many benefits to members serving in their communities, according to Lynn Samsel, director of emergency response for the Church.

“We want to encourage the humanitarian response at the local level,” he said. “It’s faster, we have fewer issues with customs, it allows the Church to purchase local products the members in the area are familiar with, it supports the local economy, and it helps build relationships.”

Supplying Aid Efficiently

A local of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Jennifer Ashley was looking for a way to serve in 2002. She discovered that in her state, where one in 12 households struggles with putting food on the table daily and 210,000 children live in poverty, the local food pantries were in need of canned goods and other basic supplies.

That’s when she came up with the idea of organizing a 5K race that would require canned food donations as the entry fee. Ten years later that single event has blossomed into “Feed the Need,” a nonprofit, volunteer organization that raises nonperishable food items for food pantries throughout the state by organizing several races each year.

“One of the benefits is that we know we were feeding our neighbors,” she said. “In my mind, when there’s a need, it’s really nice for people to receive it right away. We feed the immediate need.”

Each year, the Humanitarian Center of the Church ships, on average, 8 million pounds of shoes and clothing, 500,000 hygiene and school kits, and 20,000 quilts to more than 50 countries. But acquiring supplies in one part of the world and shipping them to another is an expensive and time-consuming process. When members see a need for quilts or clothing or other supplies in their area and can supply those needs, the response is much faster.

One example of this occurred in 2011, when political upheaval in several Arab countries caused tens of thousands of people to be displaced. Instead of assembling hygiene kits in Salt Lake and then shipping them to the Middle East, the Church Humanitarian Center provided funds to the Middle East/Africa North Area Presidency, which mobilized the 50 members living in Jordan (on the southern border of Syria).

The members partnered with the local Latin Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and Muslim students at the University of Jordan to assemble 40,000 hygiene kits and food packages in just five days, which were then distributed to those in need.

Whether in the U.S. or Jordan, members of all ages and abilities can find ways to serve locally. In some instances, individual members may initiate their own service projects.

In other cases, the branch, ward, or stake can organize opportunities for members and others to serve.

In situations that require more involved service projects, area welfare managers often work with the area office to identify needs, request Church humanitarian funds, and organize service efforts.

Local Needs, Local Solutions

Another reason for the focus on local service, explained Gustavo Estrada, also of the Welfare Department, is that local solutions often meet needs better than solutions thought up thousands of miles away. “Sometimes our solution to a problem may not be their solution—it may not be the best option,” he said.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami devastated the island country of Japan, killing 19,000 and destroying more than 551,000 homes. The Church sped to respond, sending money to local leaders, who then purchased food and other supplies in-country.

Members in Japan who were not directly affected by the earthquake volunteered thousands of hours assembling the supplies into kits that addressed the unique needs of the disaster victims better than generic kits may have. Helping fill the need locally also provided a boost to the country’s economy at a hard time.

Six months after the earthquake, then-Presiding Bishop of the Church H. David Burton spoke about the Church’s response in times of disaster: “Our strategy has always been that local priesthood leaders try to meet the needs at the local level with whatever support they may require from the institution of the Church,” he said.

In February of this year, Church-service missionaries Lamont and Celia Royer, serving in St. George, Utah, USA, had a problem. They were working in their local Deseret Industries’ humanitarian service room, where people could donate humanitarian items.

“Members and others were coming in with donations of things they had made—blankets, knit hats, and sometimes random things—that may or may not have been needed,” she said. “We had to try to find a home for these things, and storing 500 to 600 hats at times became an issue.”

When the service room closed in April, the Royers were asked to lead the way in finding local needs and local ways to serve.

“People were coming to us and asking what Salt Lake City needed,” she said. “We’d say, ‘We have needs here.’ They just weren’t aware of how many needs there are, as we’ve come to find out as we’ve visited agencies and found lots of needs down here.”

Today, Elder and Sister Royer publish a monthly newsletter that goes to all the stake presidents and stake Relief Society presidents in St. George’s 25 stakes. The “Community Service Newsletter” includes a list of volunteer opportunities with roughly 20 local agencies, including wish lists, which highlight certain organizations’ specific needs.

One facility in the area that provides 24-hour-a-day respite care for caregivers had a long list of needs, including some painting and yard care projects, they thought would take a few years to complete because of their lack of funds. In the six weeks after their wish list was published in the newsletter, five young men who were looking for a way to fulfill their Eagle Scout requirements completed all the work.

“It’s about awareness,” Sister Royer said. “We’re going out and finding what the community needs. If the goals and purposes are compatible with the Church’s, then we try to get the word out. People want to serve; they just need a starting place.”

Building Community and Testimony

In Provo, Utah, USA, the annual Women’s Conference at Brigham Young University usually includes the opportunity for the thousands who attend to assemble hygiene kits or some other type of humanitarian aid, which has traditionally been sent to areas around the world. In 2011, however, conference-goers, most of them from Utah, helped put together more than 30,000 backpacks full of school supplies for local children.

When service happens on a local level, the one giving service and the one receiving can be brought together, strengthening community ties and allowing individuals to become more self-reliant, Sister Eubank explained.

For example, earlier this year, LDS volunteers in Ghana sent 1.5 million text messages to their fellow Ghanaians, notifying them of an immunization drive sponsored by a Church partner. The service project was part of an effort to decrease the rate of childhood deaths in developing countries.

Another project in 2011 in Kenya saw 300 members spend 1,800 hours distributing tens of thousands of flyers and posters offering information about immunizations and the availability of vaccines.

“As members get out and serve in their communities, they can build relationships with their neighbors and enjoy the trust that develops from working together on a common problem,” Sister Eubank said. “Then, when some other problem comes along in the future, there is a foundation to cooperate again. Serving together builds understanding and develops real Christian brotherhood faster than anything I can think of.”

Lift Where You Stand

“Each of us has the charge to be … a doer … a lifter,” President Thomas S. Monson said as an Apostle during the October 1971 general conference. “There are those within the sphere of our own influence who, with outstretched hands, cry out: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead … ?’ Each of us must answer.”

During the October 2008 general conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf told of a group of men who were asked to move a piano. They tried different methods, but nothing worked. Finally, one man suggested they all stand close together and simply lift where they stood.

“It seemed too simple,” President Uchtdorf said. “Nevertheless, each lifted where he stood, and the piano rose from the ground and moved … as if on its own power. That was the answer to the challenge. They merely needed to stand close together and lift where they stood.”

“Too often we notice the needs around us, hoping that someone from far away will magically appear to meet those needs,” President Uchtdorf clarified during last October’s general conference. “When we do this, we deprive our neighbor of the service we could render, and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to serve.”