Ask most teenagers how they would feel about getting up early on a Saturday, leaving the house, spending four hours cleaning and collecting trash and not getting paid to do it — the word “happy” would likely not be among their first impressions and expressions.
But for the several thousand youth, young single adults and leaders from southwestern Utah participating in the May 8 “Youth Day of Service: A Gift to the Community,” the word “happy” proved to be a common refrain.
“Honestly, I’d probably still be asleep or watching TV,” said 13-year-old Michael Callahan of St. George, Utah, pausing from picking up trash with his 18-year-old brother Jacob and a small group at mile marker 11 on Utah’s Highway 18.
But realizing the importance and impact of the massive service project in and around St. George, he quickly joined in, making the Saturday sacrifice. “I’m happy,” he said, “And I’m feeling good, knowing it will look good afterward.”
Local youth, young adults and their leaders spread throughout Utah’s Washington County, assisting with three-dozen projects including clean-up efforts along state highways, state parks, community recreation areas, trailheads, empty lots, entrances to dumps and sections of industrial areas.
The final tally: more than 3,100 youth and leaders, some 11,500 man hours of work and more than 3,000 bags of trash collected.
And when the late-surging supply of volunteers exceeded the demand of scheduled service projects, leaders purchased 2,000 artificial roses and other flowers, with youth prepping and placing them along headstones of deceased women in local cemeteries as an appreciation for Mother’s Day, celebrated in the United States the next day.
Abri Wilson, 13, of St. George and her friends were especially mindful to look for the gravestones of pioneer-era women at the St. George City Cemetery. “I feel happy,” she said of the Saturday morning service. “They came across the plains, and without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Meya Villahermosa and Holly Francom — two of Abri’s 12-year-old friends from St. George — agreed, acknowledging the warm feelings of gratitude and satisfaction and smiling when an accompanying leader reminded them of “the big hugs in heaven” awaiting them for their service.
Youth were happy to serve, happy to be outside and happy to converge in a large-scale activity after more than a year of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that limited meetings, activities and interactions. The outdoor projects allowed the large numbers to appropriately come together during the months that state leaders relaxed pandemic precautions.
Elder Daren Barney, an Area Seventy with oversight in the Washington County region, acknowledged how the large numbers made the work light. “The youth are anxious to be involved in good causes and activities, and they responded enthusiastically for the opportunity to serve and to be together this weekend.”
Organizers had first expected about 750 participants, given so many conflicting events and activities that Saturday — Mother’s Day weekend travel, Washington City’s Cotton Days, high school sports and high school dances.
But the ensuing enthusiastic response meant doubling and later tripling that number, as youth and young single adults rallied together from 32 local stakes, first in St. George and Washington and then on to surrounding communities such as Enterprise, La Verkin, Hurricane and Mesquite, Nevada.
That resulted in scrambling to find more projects and more trash bags, gloves and the distinctive yellow “Helping Hands” vests.
One didn’t have to drive far in and around St. George before coming across a group of yellow-vest youth, young single adults and leaders. And some wards and stakes that had Saturday scheduling conflicts got a jump on serving, completing their own projects earlier in the week.
Craig Drew and Allison Drew serve as Utah Area directors of large humanitarian and welfare projects, helping to identify and organize large “one-and-done” projects in the area and then turn them over to local leaders. The Drews were pleasantly surprised at the never-ending response from youth volunteers.
“We would think, ‘OK, we need to cap this off,’ then we’d realize the gospel is all about making more room at the inn,” said Craig Drew, who helped meet the need to find work for more volunteers by reaching out to city, county and state officials as well as the directors of Love Where You Live, a local foundation focusing on community cleanliness and beautification.
Added Allison Drew: “We know that when we do good, we feel good. We find greater peace. We feel connected to each other. After being isolated due to the pandemic, it is a joy to serve safely outside together again.”
St. George Mayor Michele Randall expressed appreciation for volunteers sacrificing their time to help the community. “I’m quite certain they have other things they would rather be doing on a Saturday. … ‘Thank you’ doesn’t seem to say enough, but on behalf of our community we are indeed grateful and thankful for each and every one of the young people participating in this enormous service project.”
From concept through competition, “Youth Day of Service: A Gift to the Community” proved to be an impactful experience and a model for other youth in the Church’s Utah Area and beyond.
“We are grateful for the enthusiastic way youth in Washington County have responded to an opportunity to serve in their community,” said Elder Craig C. Christensen, a General Authority Seventy and Utah Area president. “It demonstrates their goodness and willingness to reach out and help in any circumstance.”
Even early on a Saturday.