While most of their southern California peers were out soaking up rays at the beach, the youth of the Glendora California Stake spent their spring break getting dishpan hands, aching muscles, and sore feet from serving at a mission for the homeless in the heart of Los Angeles.
And they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “Serving at the mission was the greatest thing we could have ever done for a youth conference,” said Heath Hamilton, 17.
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 away to the mountains or some place like that. Those who went to the mission discovered that this is what the gospel is all about—helping someone else, not yourself. 17 where it says ‘When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God,’ hit me hard.”
Jeremy Baird, a teacher, said it this way, “I thought this youth conference was going to be a bummer, but it was a great learning experience. At the mission I talked to a man who had been successful in business, but was now homeless 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 into the inner city. Caroline James, a Mia Maid, said, “When we first got to the mission, we were scared to get out of the car. After we were there, though, it was real neat talking to the people about the Church.”
Two three-hour shifts of 12 young people each went to the Los Angeles Mission daily, where they served a noon meal and an evening meal to nearly 600 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 stuffed animals were included for the children, and the baskets were distributed Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday, the youth committee and leaders traveled the 25 miles from their suburban homes to downtown Los Angeles, in two shifts, so no one would have to miss any meetings. Tables were set up next to the Union Rescue Mission, 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 the bulk 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, and “Because I Have Been Given Much” took on a whole new meaning.
“All the homeless there at the mission were reaching out for something in addition to the food we were serving. I know it is the gospel they need,” said Harleigh Williams, 17.
After serving the Sunday meal, many of the youth sat around talking to the homeless. Jeff Fuller discussed Bible points 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 a “Funniest Ward Video” contest, breakfast prepared by the bishops, workshops, games, and a dance. But at the fireside capping the conference, the main topic of the testimonies was the service project and how it had affected their 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, 17, youth co-chair of the conference.
Justin Beck, the other youth co-chair said, “I know the people at the mission have problems, but we still need to appreciate them because Heavenly Father loves each of them.”
Becky Patterson, 17, 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 bottom line,” said Sister Arnetus Raymond, second counselor in the stake Young Women presidency who worked with the young people to help plan the conference, “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.’”