When Katy Ballenger started volunteering at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, she had no idea her life would be changed forever. On her last day volunteering at the hospital, the nurses asked her to spend the day with a terminally ill boy who spoke little and who smiled even less. She read stories to him and played with him all day, and, after all her efforts, the boy laughed. He was sad to see her go at the end of the day. “I realized I had made a difference in this child’s life,” Katy says.
After experiencing the good feelings that resulted from her service, Katy decided to make a difference and continue to use the gifts her Heavenly Father had given her to serve others.
Katy now fits more service into her weekly schedule than many of us do in a year. Between school, folk dancing, Church activities, and her many service activities, she doesn’t have much time for a social life. “It’s hard,” she says. “I make a list a mile long and start doing it till they all get checked off.” The sacrifices she makes to serve others may be hard, but Katy says, “Heavenly Father, I think, is just taking my hand, and I’m saying, ‘Okay.’”
But Katy didn’t become focused on service overnight. It took practice and some good experiences. In her sophomore year at Olympus High School, Katy decided to organize her service efforts. She felt she needed to start the Help Us Give Service club—HUGS for short.
“I knew HUGS club was inspired. I knew it was from Heavenly Father,” she says. The club puts on “un-birthday parties” for homeless children who didn’t get to celebrate their birthdays during the year, takes pets to rest homes so the residents can have company, and raises money for charitable organizations, among other things. Though HUGS started out small, there are now about 20 HUGS chapters from Alaska to Australia.
From her friends at Olympus, who still run HUGS, to her mates in Australia, Katy continues to guide the new leaders of HUGS. Though Katy doesn’t know the exact number of HUGS clubs, she’s always willing to help high school students start another chapter. She said the keys to starting a HUGS club include making the service activities creative and fun, keeping the club student-run and organized, and being committed to helping others.
Even after all her years of serving others, Katy still finds it hard to go out and serve. Though she is scared sometimes, the only way she can get over her fear is to “just do it,” she says. “It’s so hard sometimes, just that feeling of ‘Am I really going to make a difference?’”
For those who find it hard to serve, Katy suggests starting with the little things. Service is anything from a smile to a big project, like raising money for a homeless shelter. So she suggests starting out by doing little things like smiling at others and helping out at home. The next step is to use your God-given talents to bless others. “That’s what God gave us talents for—to help others,” Katy says.
Brynn Janke, the president of HUGS at Olympus High School, and a Latter-day Saint, says all the club officers look up to Katy.
“When I think of Katy, I think of someone who touches more people than she realizes,” says Brynn. “She listens to the Spirit; she is so close to her Heavenly Father.” Since Katy is so willing to let God guide her footsteps, she is able to accomplish a tremendous amount of good. “Her love touches everyone.”
Now that she’s in college, Katy continues to let her love touch those around her. She has volunteered at the Special Olympics, at a special-needs school, and at a camp for children with cancer. While working with Brigham Young University’s service association, Katy has also been a Big Sister and has traveled around the United States as Miss Teen USA, a title she won because of her talents and service efforts. You may think with all this on her plate, Katy wouldn’t have time for anything else; but she also serves on the Utah Commission of Volunteers and participates in a program that helps inner-city girls.
Katy says the only way she is able to do all she does is through God’s help. “There’s no way I can take credit for all that’s happened over the past three years. It’s all Heavenly Father.”
Katy’s mom, Tina, knows the Lord is leading her daughter. “It’s incredible the places the Lord puts her in and the doors that have been opened,” she says. “She’s just on a mission; there’s no question about it.” Katy feels the service she gives is a type of missionary work. Katy and her mom are the only Church members in her family, but Tina says Katy’s example of service has touched their family members so they are more accepting of the gospel.
The Savior said, “If any man serve me, let him follow me” (John 12:26). Katy’s definition of service is “following Christ’s example every day.” She says she started out trying to change the world, but it ended up changing her.
In some ways Katy seems too perfect to be real. But she is real, and of course she’s not perfect. She is the first one to admit she has a lot to work on. She says, “I can’t give 100 percent to everything.” She tries not to be discouraged when she doesn’t do as well at something as she had hoped. Katy says she knows the Lord is able to do his work through his servants, even if they’re not perfect.