While most of their southern California peers were getting suntans at the beach, the youth of the Glendora California Stake spent their spring break getting rough hands, aching muscles, and sore feet from serving at a center for the homeless in the heart of Los Angeles.
And they wouldn’t trade the experience for any other. “Serving at the center was the greatest thing we could have ever done for a youth conference,” said Heath Hamilton, seventeen.
At first, some of the youth were skeptical. Chris Walker, a priest, said, “Lots of people thought that it couldn’t be a youth conference without going on an outing to the mountains or some place like that. Those who went to the center discovered that this is what the gospel is all about—helping someone else, not yourself. It really impressed upon me the statement in Mosiah 2:17 where it says ‘When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.’”
Jeremy Baird, a teacher, said, “I thought this youth conference wasn’t going to be very good, but it was a great learning experience. At the center for the homeless, I talked to a man who had been successful in business, but now had no home and had lost his family as a result of drugs. It taught me that what I had thought about all the people who are homeless is not true.”
Some people were a little concerned about going to the center, which is located in a less desirable part of the city. Caroline James, a Mia Maid, said, “When we first got to the center, we were scared to get out of the car. After we were there, though, it was a good experience talking to the people about the Church.”
Two three-hour shifts of twelve young people each went to the Los Angeles center for the homeless daily, where they served a noon meal and an evening meal to nearly six hundred homeless people. They also sorted clothes and helped prepare for the Easter meals.
In addition, the youth filled more than 150 Easter baskets with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and other personal hygiene items. Collection boxes had been placed in each ward building and in several community locations to receive the donated items. Some candy and cuddly toy animals were included for the children, and the baskets were distributed Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday, the youth committee and leaders traveled the twenty-five miles from their homes to downtown Los Angeles, in two shifts, so no one would have to miss any Church meetings. Tables were set up next to the center, where breakfast was served in the early morning and a traditional Easter dinner was served in the afternoon. Nearly 2,500 meals were served on each shift.
When most of the serving was complete, the youth were invited to sing. “As I Have Loved You” and “I Am a Child of God” brought tears to everyone involved.
“All the homeless there at the center were reaching out for something in addition to the food we were serving. I know it is the gospel they need,” said Harleigh Williams, seventeen.
After serving the Sunday meal, many of the youth sat around talking to the homeless. Jeff Fuller discussed Bible principles with one man. “This was definitely one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “They are all children of God. They gave me great advice on staying away from things by telling me how they got there.”
Of course, the youth conference did include the traditional activities like breakfast prepared by the bishops, workshops, games, and a dance. But at the fireside ending the conference, the main topic of the testimonies was the service project and how it had affected the young people’s lives.
“I know that you who had a negative attitude going down there definitely changed your attitude about the needy. It was by far the most rewarding youth conference I have ever participated in,” said Lisa Summerhays, seventeen, youth co-chair of the conference.
Justin Beck, the other youth co-chair said, “I know the people at the center have problems, but we still need to appreciate them because Heavenly Father loves each of them.”
Becky Patterson, seventeen, agreed. “One thing I have learned this week is that everybody is equally important. It doesn’t matter who or where you are; Heavenly Father loves you.”
“The most important thing,” said Sister Arnetus Raymond, second counselor in the stake Young Women presidency, “is that we learned that to develop love and unity, we have to serve. Service is the key. Our youth learned firsthand the meaning of serving ‘one of the least of these.’”