“You want us to do what?” they asked. “For how long? Why?”
When she heard those questions, McKenzie McNaughton knew this project might be a challenge.
At the beginning of the school year, McKenzie, a senior and member of the student council at Washington Township High School in Deptford, New Jersey, hatched an idea. She wanted the entire senior class to spend one school day providing service in the community. Nothing too elaborate. Just a few hours sprucing up the place.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to give back to the school and what we could do,” she says. “I thought this would be a good way.”
And that’s how Washington Township’s Senior Service Day began.
Things got a little tricky when she presented the idea to her fellow students, however.
“In September, when I told the student body of my idea at the beginning of an assembly, they were excited,” McKenzie says. “But then what I was saying started to sink in. Before the assembly was over, a lot of guys were saying, ‘You’re not going to get us all to go and clean a park. We’re not going to do this.’
“And I’m still in the EFY, youth-conference mode,” McKenzie adds. “I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to get to clean together, guys. We get to rake. And we’re doing it for free!’ I had to finally realize that maybe everybody wouldn’t be as excited just to spend a day working.”
Those few negative responses didn’t diminish McKenzie’s enthusiasm for the project, though. It was now McKenzie’s job to get those naysaying students into, as she says, “the mode.”
Nine months later, and a week before they all graduated, approximately 500 of the senior class’s 600 students shuffled out of the school holding rakes and shovels to board buses headed for nearby parks and schools.
If there is one thing McKenzie knows, it’s service projects. If you’re a Latter-day Saint, they kind of come with the territory. Since McKenzie turned 12 and joined Young Women, she’s helped paint a preschool building, and she’s gone on her ward’s annual Christmas caroling excursions to local hospitals. “We also regularly visit nursing homes, and we’ve given Easter baskets to the Ronald McDonald House,” she says. And McKenzie isn’t even including her Young Women Value Experiences which consisted of—among other things—acquiring donated fleece and using it to make toys and pillows she then donated to the local women’s shelter.
Making it work
Senior Service Day was a little different from those activities in one big way. This was McKenzie’s idea, and she had to make it happen. There was no Laurel adviser to coordinate everything. So to accomplish her goal, McKenzie had to inspire a bunch of students not experienced in service projects to pitch in. “I think my high school is full of good kids. This will work,” she said confidently the day before the event.
“When I do service, it makes me more grateful for what I have. It’s a ton of work, but I think you learn how to work. It’s so fun. You really like to work,” she adds.
McKenzie was also only one of two Church members in her senior class. She knew she was perceived as being different by her classmates. And coming up with the idea of Senior Service Day didn’t necessarily change their opinions. “Because I don’t go to the parties on Fridays, other kids will ask me what I like to do. Then they become curious. Once I went on a picnic with a couple of kids who I kind of knew but wasn’t really good friends with. We were just talking about stuff, and we ended up talking for an hour-and-a-half about the Church.” Serving others was one of the topics that day. Senior Service Day would give McKenzie the opportunity to practice what she preached.
Still, there was the little issue of instilling excitement in the other students about—ahem—the prospect of raking. There was also a lot of planning necessary to make the whole thing happen. “I didn’t realize how much work had to be put into it,” she says.
With the help of teachers and counselors who offered their help, and after postponing the day twice, June 1 finally came and everything was in order. McKenzie made sure of it, checking off each item one by one:
X The school district had furnished the buses to transport the students.
X Bus drivers volunteered their time.
X The township had approved the work in several different parks.
X The elementary and middle schools’ principals were enthusiastic about the service the students would provide.
X A local pizza restaurant had donated pizzas for the party afterward, and grocery stores had provided soda pop.
“I think it’s going to be great,” she said, the day before Senior Service Day would actually happen. Pizzas and cases of soda as enticements certainly couldn’t hurt.
Senior Service Day
Even with all the planning, the next morning McKenzie drove from place to place to make sure everything was coordinated and going according to plan. She found students who had descended on the sites, and she thought back to that first assembly. “I think they kind of didn’t get what we were trying to do in the very beginning. But after they thought about it, they realized it could be fun,” she says.
At one school, several girls hemmed the bottom of the frayed stage curtain. Outside, another group was picking up litter along a fence line. At a middle school, kids were spading and weeding a garden while others were—yes!—raking the courtyard lawn.
And later that morning at The Birches Elementary School sat McKenzie. She was reading to the second-graders who had crowded around a wooden rocking chair. Eleven years earlier, McKenzie had been in this classroom. Her teacher from back then was still teaching. As McKenzie looked at the new batch of seven- and eight-year-olds, she fondly remembered her days in the school.
The kids were attentive, listening as McKenzie read from a children’s book.
“It was so much fun being back in that classroom,” she says afterward. “This has gone so well.”
A few hours later, the students were back at the high school sitting around listening to music, eating pizza, and smiling about what they had accomplished.
“You want us to do what? For how long? Why?”
They now had their answers.
McKenzie no longer lives in New Jersey. She’s now a student at BYU in Provo, Utah. Senior Service Day is long since over.
“I’m glad we did it. I think it was a success,” she says.
Which just proves what can happen when everybody gets in the “EFY, youth-conference mode.”