Do you ever wish that you could have a perfect friend? The kind of friend who is always caring, friendly, polite, and understanding? The kind of friend who brings out the best in you? Maybe it’s what you think about most when you feel like you don’t have any friends, much less perfect ones. Dreams of a perfect friend are great if you’re somehow not invited to go to the party that everyone else has been talking about all week, or if you’re sitting home alone while your best friend, your sister, and even your mom and dad are out on dates. With a perfect friend, you’d never be lonely, or bored, or left out.
Youth in Louisville, Kentucky, might feel that way sometimes, but not right now. Right now they’re at youth conference, and, instead of thinking about themselves, they’re thinking about other people. Lots of other people. Children who need their help, their love, and most of all their friendship.
These teens are doing a three-day service project providing most of the volunteer support for the Spina Bifida Association of America’s yearly children’s program being held at a hotel in downtown Louisville. The program is a sort of day camp for children with spina bifida—a birth defect that affects spinal cord development. Their siblings are also invited to attend while their parents attend workshops on spina bifida. Most of the kids have leg braces, crutches, or wheelchairs, so for the Latter-day Saint youth it means three days of hard work, patience, and, hopefully, fun.
Eighteen-year-old Annie Poulsen knows that the art of making new friends requires plenty of supplies—art supplies, that is. Several months before youth conference, Annie began to gather markers, scissors, and glue from local businesses as part of a Laurel project. When the conference began, Annie and all the other volunteers used the supplies she gathered to cut, color, and paste different projects.
“Here in the art room, everybody is sitting down,” says Annie. “We’re all coloring together and having a good time. You don’t even think about the fact that some of us are in wheelchairs.”
In another room, Natalee Norton is up to her elbows in shaving cream. The infants and toddlers she has been assigned to help are too young to do the art projects that Annie helped coordinate, but they’re plenty old enough to enjoy making a mess. After a few minutes of mucking shaving cream around a large table, Natalee and the other kids and volunteers hold up their foam-covered hands, stare for just a moment, and then laugh, some of the kids making faces and holding their hands up like monster claws.
“This is really fun,” says Natalee, as she heads for the sink to rinse off. “I didn’t think it would be this much fun.”
This is John Draper’s last youth conference. In the fall he heads to college at George Washington University. As a youth director for this very busy conference, he’s going out with a bang.
“The main goal of this conference is that the children and their parents will be able to feel the love of the Savior through us,” says John. “It’s a challenge, but I think we can accomplish it.”
And that feeling, that focus of sharing Christlike love, not only to the conference participants, but to each other as well, is evident in every group and at every activity.
“We sometimes give the boys in our ward a hard time,” says Mia Maid Rochelle Neal. “But today I got to see a little different side to them, playing with all the kids and having a great time. They were all really great.”
Austin Latchaw didn’t know much about spina bifida before this conference began. He still probably couldn’t tell you much scientific information about it, but he knows that it has made it difficult for his new friend, eight-year-old Jay, to use his legs.
“Jay has a really good attitude about everything,” says Austin. “He came all the way from Indiana with his family to be here, and he just makes friends with everyone. It’s hard for him to walk, and a lot of these kids have to use wheelchairs, but they are happy anyway—very happy. It makes you feel good just to be around them.”
Michael Draper, a teacher, found a buddy on the basketball court.
“I played a lot of ball with my new friend Chris today,” he says. “At first I think we both felt a little awkward since we didn’t really know each other. But by the end of the day, he was my friend.”
Since the youth of the Louisville stake go to several different schools and live fairly far from one another, youth conference is one of the few times all year that they get to spend a sustained amount of time with each other. Their time together is precious. When their volunteer work is done for the day, they gear up for evening sports, games, or dancing. There’s not a lot of sleeping (they can do that when youth conference ends), but no one seems tired. In fact, after a whole day of pushing wheelchairs, playing children’s games, and standing in the sun, these youth seem energized.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to come to youth conference,” confides 15-year-old Rebecca Eve. “I thought the days would be long and boring, but now I don’t want it to end. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
There’s a good feeling at the conference, and it seems to be contagious. Even people assigned to less exciting jobs—like serving as runners for the nurses’ station or guarding a large staircase to ensure that no one goes tumbling down it in a wheelchair—seem to be having fun.
“I thought these kids would need a lot of help,” says Mia Maid Ashley Holmes. “But really, we are just here to talk to them and be their friends. Since we’re actively involved with what’s going on the whole time, it’s a lot of fun, just as much fun as a regular youth conference, if not more.”
Since the SBAA hosts its annual conference in a different city each year, it’s not likely that it will be held in Louisville again for a long time. Chances are, most of these participants and volunteers will never see each other again. With the activities winding down, the youth want to give their new friends one last memorable experience.
On the last day of the conference all the children and their parents gather in the hotel lobby for a special goodbye. The youth have prepared a song called “We Are the Hands of Heaven” to leave a final, spiritual message. The song has been carefully prepared and rehearsed, complete with two flute players and someone “singing” the words in American Sign Language. The piano begins and the voices start out strong. But then someone looks out into the crowd and sees the smiling face of a new friend, looking up intently from where she is seated in her tiny wheelchair. Tears begin to stream down a few cheeks, then a few more, and finally hardly anyone is left with dry eyes. The song, still beautiful, is sung more softly than in rehearsal. No one seems to mind.
When the song ends, one little girl rushes toward two of the volunteers and says, “You made my eyes water!” A little boy moves his crutches as fast as he can to catch up with two priests. “Here’s my address,” he says a little shyly. “Will you write me?”
As the youth leave the hotel for the last time, some smiling, some a little teary, the atmosphere is quiet. There are lots of things to think about.
There’s a dance tonight, a ’50s theme dance which everyone will dress up for. Later, there will be a devotional. Tomorrow morning, a testimony meeting. It’s all pretty much the same as any youth conference, but they feel just a little different. It’s been a unique three days.
And as they are thinking about all the new friends they’ve made and all the old friendships they’ve strengthened, they may briefly think about that perfect friend. The one who always knows just what to say, the one you can always count on.
Perhaps they’ll never find that perfect friend. But after the last three days maybe, just maybe, they’re a little closer to being one.