Roots and Branches


How do you thrive where the Church is small? Rely on great faith and great friends.

Michael McIlwaine is alone, but he’s not lonely. As the only LDS young man his age in his branch, that might seem surprising.

“It seems I’m always the president and only member of whatever Aaronic Priesthood quorum I’m in,” he jokes.

You wouldn’t expect people to be alone or lonely in Michael’s hometown of Wollongong, Australia, a large city south of Sydney. But the Church is small there, as it is in many of the towns and cities in Australia. When Michael’s friends, Mia Maids Rachel and Melissa Clancy, joined the Church, they nearly doubled the size of their Young Women’s group. And just like LDS youth in any good-sized city, this small group of people go out of their way to be together so that they can help each other avoid the temptations that come along with living in an urban area.

Across the Australian state of New South Wales to the west of Wollongong, on the edge of the outback, you’ll find the tiny town of Broken Hill. Broken Hill is about as different from Wollongong as any two cities in the same country can be. Unlike Wollongong, Broken Hill doesn’t have a shopping mall, has no beachfront property, and is home to only two smallish high schools. It can be a challenge to find wholesome things to do in a rural area like this.

But you might be surprised to learn that youth in both Wollongong and Broken Hill have nearly the exact same challenges to face. Location doesn’t seem to change the fact that certain temptations always exist, and it often seems that it’s nearly impossible to find the right kinds of activities to participate in. The youth in both places have something else in common, too. They all live in small branches. People living in regular-sized wards often feel that they are able to meet the problems they face because of the strength they draw from the other people their age. But what if you’re like Michael, all alone? What if you live in a place like Broken Hill where it sometimes seems that most everyone is drinking? Does that mean you’re doomed if you’re part of a small group?

“I’ve lived a lot of places,” says Brooke Kowalski, a Laurel in Broken Hill, “and I’d rather live in Broken Hill than any place else. People here really know me and I know them.”

Maybe you can relate to living in a small branch. Maybe you sometimes feel alone in living gospel principles. The youth in Broken Hill and Wollongong have some great ideas for living the gospel, ideas that will work no matter where you live.

All in the family

A few years ago, Rachel and Melissa were both at home on a Saturday afternoon. The doorbell rang, and Rachel greeted two nicely dressed young men at the door. She thought they were salesmen. Their dad, Gerry, agreed to chat with the young men, who were actually full-time missionaries. Life in the Clancy home changed forever when the girls and their father were baptized.

The Clancy girls soon discovered that living their new religion meant having most of their friendships with people of other faiths, a role that both missionary-minded girls embrace. But where does their strength come from? Some comes from a handful of LDS friends and leaders, but most of what makes these girls strong is what happens within the walls of their home.

This family knows how to work together. Rachel handles laundry, including ironing, while Melissa helps with some of the outside chores, like mowing the lawn. They both look after their younger brother and sister, Matt and Stefany, while their dad is at work or handling Church responsibilities.

The Clancys know how to play, too. In fact, both girls say that most of their best gospel learning experiences come from conversations during fun times with the family jumping on the trampoline, hiking, or swimming.

“This year Dad and Matt and I spent several days hiking at a place called Ayers Rock,” says Rachel. “I like hiking but I’m afraid of heights and this was a really steep hike. We stopped and said a prayer and I felt better. When we got to the top there was a beautiful view. My dad and I talked about how it was a lesson about enduring to the end. It’s my favorite memory from that hiking trip.”

Super seminary

There are lots of great things about seminary in Broken Hill, but the one thing that Damon Edwards likes the best is the tests. You might not believe it, but it’s true. Damon’s favorite part of class is the part that usually has people clutching their pencils and hoping for mercy. But these are no ordinary tests. They involve a multi-colored buzzer and lots of fun. A question is posed, and the first person to buzz in gets to answer.

“During tests we get to really interact with each other and get to know each other better. I love tests in seminary. Not to mention the fact that I know what I’m learning will be useful for the rest of my life.”

The Broken Hill seminary class is about the only time the LDS youth see much of each other. Although most of them attend the same high school, different age groupings and schedules keep them apart. Seeing their friends at seminary reminds them they’re not alone, even if it feels that way.

“One of my school teachers was talking about evolution and reincarnation. We talked about humans evolving from apes,” says 15-year-old Josh Cowdrey. After mustering up his courage, Josh raised his hand and presented his beliefs about the premortal existence and the Creation. “We talk about these things in seminary, and it helps me sort things out in my own mind so I can explain it to others.”

In addition to discussion of the scriptures, this group often spends time talking about the application of gospel principles in their lives. They talk about everything from how to graciously turn down an invitation to a drinking party to how food storage and emergency preparedness help during natural disasters.

“We have really great talks during seminary,” says Kelly Drury, 16, “and we also have great talks at other times because we’ve all become friends during seminary.”

Older and wiser

The youth in both branches say their relationships with the adults in their branch is what really makes being in a branch special. Since the branches are small, everyone seems to know everyone else well, and age doesn’t seem to matter much.

In Broken Hill, the youth love all their leaders, but they especially love Colin Osborne. In addition to being a member of the branch presidency, Brother Osborne keeps the branch building clean and maintains the grounds—with the help of everyone else in the branch, including the seminary class.

“Every once in a while I get to help mow the lawn on the riding lawn mower,” says Brooke. “It’s heaps fun.”

But the seminary class’s relationship with Brother Osborne is about more than mopping floors and raking up grass clippings. Brother Osborne knows something about the lives of the seminary students. He cares about them, and they, in turn, are interested in him. The fact that they are separated by nearly two generations doesn’t seem to matter.

“Colin cares about us and looks after us,” says Nathan Cowdrey. “That makes us feel good.”

In Wollongong, the seminary students, Rachel, Melissa, Michael, and fellow student Naomi Bailey don’t seem to mind that their seminary teacher, Diane Rolls, has grown children. Simply being older than they are doesn’t discount the fact that she’s a great friend.

Naomi sums it up best when she says, “It helps a lot to be with people who have the same beliefs as you; it makes you stronger. We love Sister Rolls because she’s our friend, and she helps us be friends with each other.”

Of one heart

Being in a branch is great because it’s a lot like being in a big family. Age matters less; friendship matters more. And because LDS teenagers are few and far between, they really take advantage of every class, activity, and program.

After reading how much fun these youth have, despite the fact they live in areas of the world where they are few in number, perhaps you’re feeling a little jealous. After all, who wouldn’t want to be part of such caring, close-knit groups? Who hasn’t felt alone at one time or another, even in a large ward?

Take heart. You can make your ward or branch just as special by doing the same things these youth do. They know that being happy where you live is all a matter of attitude, not location.

A Special Baptism

Vivi Tzanis, a Beehive in Wollongong, is pretty much like all the girls in her branch, except that she has a special reason to be thankful for her LDS friends. Vivi had to wait several years for permission from her father to be baptized. Vivi’s mother is a member of the Church and has always been a great support. Fellow Beehives Mei-Eun and Mei-Jin Lee have also encouraged her as she has prepared and prayed for permission to be baptized.

“Mei-Eun and Mei-Jin and I love to talk and laugh together,” she says. “It’s great to have friends who are the right kind of influence on me.”

While she was waiting, the members of the branch treated her just like everyone else and prayed and fasted for her. Finally, after a fair amount of waiting, Vivi’s father felt good about giving her permission.

“My dad really likes the Church, and it has been my greatest wish to be baptized and to be a member of the true Church,” says Vivi. “The day my dad gave me permission was the happiest day of my life.”

Now that Vivi is officially a Church member, some things in her life will change. One thing that won’t? The help and support of the friends she has in her branch.

[photos] Photography by Lisa M. G. Crockett

[photo] The only young women in their seminary class, Brooke Kowalski (left) and Kelly Drury depend on each other to keep their testimonies strong.

[photo] It may look like there’s not much to do here, but the young men in Broken Hill find creative ways to have fun, even if it’s just trekking to the outskirts of town to enjoy the view.

[photo] Seminary tests are a highlight in Broken Hill, in large part because of a colorful light-up buzzer that keeps things interesting (left).

[photo] Brothers Nathan and Josh Cowdrey (right) keep their friendship strong by spending time together.

[photos] Seminary in Wollongong consists of only four students (at right), Rachel Clancy, Naomi Bailey, Melissa Clancy, and Michael McIlwaine. But with the help of their beloved teacher, Diane Rolls (left), their gospel knowledge is strong.

[photo] For Vivi Tzanis, (below, left) the support of friends like Mei-Jin Lee (right) and the other youth in her branch helped her wait patiently for permission to be baptized.