Searching for a great idea for a youth conference? The Aurora Colorado Stake has a suggestion.
Now just a minute. Before you stop reading, maybe we ought to define that a little bit.
Like shoveling gravel, digging dirt, weeding, painting, washing cars. You know, just the sort of thing you live for on a hot summer day.
All right, all right. There’s an explanation. See, the kids from Aurora wanted to do something different for their youth conference, something grand. So they spent three days cleaning up a city.
“We asked the stake youth committee what they wanted to do,” explained Richard C. Humpherys, second counselor in the stake presidency. “They said, ’something to help someone else,’ and something to build our testimonies.’ Since they asked for it, we took them up on it.”
Inspired by a story in the New Era special issue on service (see March 1988, p. 46), the youth committee looked around for a community they could help. They settled on Granby for three reasons: it was nearby; a slumping economy had hit the area hard; and the mayor, town council, and chamber of commerce seemed genuinely interested in providing projects for the youth to work on.
There was an added benefit, too. The small LDS branch in Granby, with a total of five active families, had a youth program that would love some company. In fact, while the youth from Aurora were there, they could help paint the Granby chapel.
Great entertainment, right?
Buses left Aurora at 7:00 on a Thursday morning. By 10:30 A.M., 84 young people divided into eight teams were scurrying all over Granby. Since they were all wearing identical T-shirts, they were fairly conspicuous. And a local radio station advertising the LDS youth’s free car wash also let people know who they were and what they were doing.
“We went into a store to buy some pop,” said Andy Clapton, 18, who had been shoveling gravel all morning at the train depot. “The clerk said, ‘Are you the Mormon kids? You’re doing a great job.’”
“Lots of people have asked what we’re doing,” said Sandra Hilborne, 15, as she leveled out tree bark in a planter box on Main Street. “We tell them we’re helping others and having fun at the same time.”
And that, really, is what began to happen.
“I wasn’t very excited at first,” said Liza Zmolek, 14. “But then I saw people watching us. I felt like somebody was counting on me, so I started working hard, and it felt good.”
Angelica Velez, 15, wiped her forehead, then smiled. “When we first got to the cemetery,” she said, “you couldn’t even see the tombstones. Then we brought in lawnmowers and weed whackers and raked it up and carried out a lot of wood. Now it looks nice.”
Ginny Stafford, 14, spent the morning on her knees, pulling weeds till her fingers were stained green. She said out loud what a lot of people were feeling: “It’s dirty work, but when you’re done, you feel happy, not dirty.”
Besides sprucing up Main Street, washing cars, tidying the cemetery, spreading gravel at the train depot, and chopping weeds at a main intersection on the highway into town, the youth painted the city’s historic log church, landscaped its grounds, and polished the benches and the organ inside.
“I thought that was neat,” said Daphne Motto, 17. “It didn’t matter that it’s not an LDS church. It’s like we were saying, we’re all brothers and sisters and we need to help each other.”
And of course, that’s very much what the youth were saying over at the LDS chapel.
“It was kind of scary when two full buses drove up,” said Corey Trial, 13, one of four active LDS teens from Granby.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Mark Bickmore, 14, “I’d never seen that many kids before with the same religion as me.”
Soon Ray Beaty, 16, of Granby, was working side by side with Aurora youth he’d met only that morning. “We get lonely up here, and sometimes we think we’re all alone. But working together like this, I think we’ve formed some friendships that will last.”
And Vickie Adams, 13, the only Granby girl active in Young Women, said, “I’m not used to this many people. It helps me feel like there are other Mormons around.”
The Granby youth and the youth from Aurora did everything at the conference together, not only the service projects, but the other activities as well. They played volleyball together. They played football together. They even played soccer with an oversized ball.
Other activities included a luau with a floor show, a swimming party, and a dance. But the main activity was conversation, a sharing of ideals and fellowship.
“I found out the Church is a lot smaller here,” said Fred Tanquary, 17. “I mean, there are only four kids in the branch. But I think we all had the gospel in common, and they just became a part of us.”
Over the three-day period, the youth from Granby and the youth from Aurora grew comfortable discussing common goals—missionary work, reading and sharing the Book of Mormon, morality and standards, maintaining faith when the world’s full of doubt. That closeness was also reinforced at nightly devotionals, where leaders stressed themes such as “Little Decisions Made Now Have Big Consequences Later,” “Gospel Tips on How to Be Happy,” and “Your Most Important Possession is Your Testimony.”
But of course, as it always is, the final meeting of the conference was the highlight. In a sunlit room at the YMCA of the Rockies, the LDS youth met Granby’s mayor, Jerry Roberts. They presented him with framed historical photos of Granby, and with a Book of Mormon, which they hope he will read. They listened while he expressed the community’s gratitude.
Then the youth and their leaders spent an hour or two talking to each other, speaking from the heart.
One young man who has been struggling to keep the commandments told the rest of the group they had helped him.
“I’ve known for a long time that I need to change some things,” he said. “And being here has helped me see how happy you can be just doing what’s right. I’m making a change. I’m starting over.”
Darla Evans, 17, said she thought it was great to do something at a youth conference besides entertain yourself. “Even the pioneer trek we went on last year—it was challenging, but it was still just for us. This has all been for other people.”
Another young man, a priest, said that he’d only been active in the Church for a year. “This is the only youth conference I’ve ever been to,” he said. “But I’ve really felt the Spirit here.”
Others, like Holly Mattison, 16, talked about living the gospel in a high school where, as a Latter-day Saint, she’s outnumbered. “It’s not always easy,” she said. “There are lots of challenges.” But she said a talk at one of the devotionals reminded her that the Savior loves her, that he knows her by name and will help her to be strong.
Of course, as they talked, the youth also offered an evaluation. “If my mom had asked me to do the same thing in my backyard, I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it,” said Adriana Velez, 17. “In fact, before we left, I told one of my friends what we were doing, and she said, ‘My parents would never make me do that!’”
Then the president of the Granby Branch, Gary M. Cooper, spoke.
“The branch was formed 15 years ago,” he said, “and I can honestly say that this is the neatest thing that’s ever happened to us. We appreciate that you took the time to come up here and bring us into the limelight in our community. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. You did a lot of work and you cleaned up the community, and that’s important. But what I really hope is that because of your example, someone will accept the gospel. That would be the greatest service of all.”
The Aurora Colorado Stake hasn’t been around that long. It was formed when another stake divided, several months before the Aurora youth went to Granby. Before the stake was divided, the planned youth conference was a river trip. When plans for three days of hard labor in Granby were announced, some of the youth thought they were losing out.
But talk to the youth now, and they’ll rattle on and on about their “service conference.”
You know—the time when they went to Granby, where they learned that work can be a lot of fun.