The Girls in the Garage

by Lisa A. Johnson

Assistant Editor

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    What are they building in there? Oh, friendship, testimony …

    The garage? These girls in Pennsylvania are flocking to a garage?

    It might make a little sense to Lani Atkinson, 18, who secretly wants to be a mechanic.

    But what about her sisters, Cory, 12; Arin, 14; and Nicky, 17? They come from a family of 11 children and work hard for everything they get. They have their own business that involves cutting and trimming lawns in many of the historical graveyards in the area. It requires a lot of time, yet midweek, at the appointed hour, no matter where they are, the sisters toss their weed whackers in the truck, drive the mowers onto the trailer, and head for the garage.

    And what about Heather Hulings? You can often find her strolling around the lake next to her home with an admiring male friend. When it’s time, she’ll run back to the house, jump in the car with her sisters Stephanie, 16; and Darcie, 12, and head for the garage. If the young men are gathering and the male friend is interested, he can come along too. He usually does.

    Then there’s Carrie Guskiewicz. She could be on deck in the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded, but if it was the right time, she’d drop her bat, race to the car, and have her mom drive her to the garage.

    Beth Humphreys is the one who will really surprise you. She’s 19, has graduated from high school, and is on scholarship hundreds of miles away at Alford University in New York. Yet she still thinks wistfully of the garage, and heads there every chance she gets when she’s home on vacation.

    What’s the Secret?

    What is it about a garage that entices these girls to drop whatever they’re doing and gather there for midweek activities? All right, so the Young Women’s room of the Indiana Branch, Pittsburgh North Stake, doesn’t exactly look like a garage any more. Members have worked hard to convert a small private residence into a church. Kind of gives the word meetinghouse a whole new meaning. Primary meets in the former living room; the chapel is in the basement. And the garage is now a finished room with white walls, and the Young Women’s room in the corner of it has your basic posters, folding chairs, even a window.

    But it really isn’t what they find in the garage that pulls them there. It’s more what they bring with them. These young women share an uncommon camaraderie among girls so varied. They belong to a group in which everyone loves each other, the older girls look out for the younger ones, and nobody feels left out.

    “There’s a special sisterhood-type thing we share,” says Arin Atkinson. “The girls in the branch are just as easy to talk to as my own sisters.”

    Lani, Arin’s older sister, agrees. “All of us are really pretty different from each other, but whenever we get together, no matter what our differences are, we have a great time.”

    “We meet in a small house, so we have to be close,” laughs Teri Gibbs, 18. “There’s nowhere else to go. It’s neat because the Laurels are close to the Beehives and the Mia Maids are close to everyone.”

    Some of these girls seem to have about as much in common with each other as Christmas and Halloween. What is it that keeps them united? What is it that makes them want to drop whatever they’re doing and gather in the garage?

    Sitting in the garage with them, you begin to see. These girls go to at least five different high schools. Most of them are outnumbered about a thousand to one, when it comes to a non-Mormon to Mormon ratio. The garage and the girls there form a sort of shelter—a respite. This is where they meet with others who feel the same way they do, and who never stop encouraging each other in their lives and beliefs.

    Mutual Admiration

    Try to get them to tell you about themselves, and they’ll talk about their friends.

    “Jenny (Snyder) makes all her own clothes and they’re beautiful—she’s going to design costumes for the theater someday.”

    “You’ll have to hear how well Heather (Humphreys) plays the piano. She’s really great.”

    “All the boys at school respect Teri (Gibbs) so much they say she’s the cookie jar up on the shelf that every one wants but is too high to get to.”

    You might think that in a group this tight, it would be a little difficult for a newcomer. But not so. Just ask Amanda Curry, 16, who started attending the branch a few months ago. Amanda is pretty and talented—in many situations, girls would be jealous. But Amanda says they welcomed her with open arms. “The girls accepted me completely,” she said. “They treat me like a sister.”

    Maybe that’s why so many non-LDS people in the area are comfortable visiting. Almost every girl has a missionary story to tell.

    “I’ve had one friend who has known for a long time that we are Mormons,” said Stephanie Hulings. “But I was really taken aback when she asked if she could come to my youth group with us. I took her to a fireside, and now she comes to almost all the midweek activities.”

    “I’m in sixth grade and the only Mormon in my class,” said Carrie Guskiewicz. “I found out that the missionaries are visiting my teacher at school—it makes me realize I have to be a really good example.”

    The girls in the branch are great examples to the non-LDS boys they sometimes date. You’ll find a handful of those boys at every baptism, joint activity, fireside, sacrament meeting, and Sunday School lesson. Some even come when the girls who invited them aren’t in attendance. Their appetites may have been whetted by the young women, but once at church, they find there’s a spiritual banquet they’d never anticipated.

    It seems the LDS girls greatly outnumber the LDS boys in the area, but that doesn’t bother the girls. “We don’t have any problems with guys who don’t accept our standards,” says Lani Atkinson. “We just don’t date anyone like that.” It’s that simple.

    Living Up

    Truly living your religion is not such an unusual thing in this part of Pennsylvania. The Amish people have been here for years, and their religion has changed little. Their horse-drawn buggies, simple, homemade clothes, and avoidance of modern machinery make them stand out. The young women have an affection for them, knowing how difficult it is to avoid the ways of the world.

    “As members of the Church, we definitely stand out here. There are just a few other Mormons in our school,” says Stephanie Hulings.

    Her sister Heather agrees. “Since we stand out, there’s a lot of peer pressure from others to make us like them. They want us to smoke and drink, and a lot of drugs come out here from Pittsburgh, which is about an hour and a half away. At least, by being so different, though, we have a lot of chances to tell people about our beliefs.”

    Other factors that unite these girls in the garage and help them ward off worldly influences? Music is a big one. These girls can sing! You’ll hear them spontaneously harmonizing at any hour of the day or night—while they’re driving to seminary, while they’re weeding the meetinghouse lawn, while they’re doing just about anything.

    They look forward to girls’ camp because it means continuous days of nonstop harmonizing. Even those who aren’t musically gifted get a thrill out of being a part of such an angelic chorus. Visitors are mesmerized when these girls start to sing.

    But when the music dies down, the talking has stopped, and the investigators have gone home, there is still something that binds these girls together. It would be there whether they met in a garage or in a massive, elegant chapel. For all their varied backgrounds, they have a basic core in common. They’ve all felt the true love of Christ. That love is so wonderful to them they do their best to make it work in their lives, and they want to share it with others.

    “We have seen the greatest thing on earth, the love of Christ, light up the face of a lonely, elderly woman as the Young Women brought her dinner and sang to her,” says Teri Gibbs. “We have seen that love lift a frustrated mother’s heart as the Young Women baby-sat her children so she could enjoy a night out. It is through this that I have grown closer to Heavenly Father and to other youth in the Church. We strive to be more like Christ.”

    That’s why the girls are so eager to get to the garage. It’s there that they can feel and nurture the love of Christ. In the garage, they help each other recharge their batteries; then they go out and share that energy with everyone else.

    Photography by Lisa A. Johnson

    Teri Gibbs (upper left) and Darcie, Heather, and Stephanie Hulings love the green Pennsylvania outdoors, but they still can’t wait to get to the garage.

    The Atkinsons—Nicky (above), Cory (left), and Lani (far left)—help in the family business of caring for cemeteries. Those skills come in handy at the yard work project in front of the meetinghouse (top left).

    (Top) Carrie Guskiewicz loves sports, especially playing softball. Building a human pyramid (right) is just symbolic of the strong relationships they’ve built, where they all help support each other.