Youth conference provides special opportunity

Youth conference this year became a special world event - with emphasis on "special" - for young men and young women in the Hartford Connecticut, New Haven Connecticut and Providence Rhode Island stakes. More than 400 LDS youth opted to turn their youth conference into a massive service project at the Special Olympics World Games July 5-7.

They came away with rewards that included big smiles, hugs and "high fives," according to Ben Johansen, a priest in the Trumbull 1st Ward, New Haven Connecticut Stake.The youth spent three days supporting the athletes, working in concession stands and cleaning in the closing-ceremonies venue in and around New Haven, Conn. Their efforts helped make the event a success for 7,000 participants from 140 countries.

"This was unlike other youth conferences because it was almost all service," said 16-year-old Merilee Hales of the Southbury Ward, New Haven Connecticut Stake. "We could tell from their reactions that the athletes appreciated us being there. As they walked by before their races we would cheer them and wish them luck. It got them all pumped up."

"We know we made a difference," Ben said.

The volunteer service during the conference was diverse. A large group spent time Thursday and Friday sweeping out the 70,000-seat Yale Bowl to get it ready for closing ceremonies. Other youth worked in concession stands at the Special Olympic's Expo Park. But the most significant and memorable service was athlete support. The youth were assigned to different event venues where they cheered, encouraged and befriended Special Olympics athletes from many nations.

Lee Norton of the Newtown Ward said the week's highlight was the interaction with the Special Olympians. "At first, some at youth conference would just hang back, not knowing what to do," he said. "But by the end of the first day they were all up there making friends with the athletes."

He noted that while the LDS youth provided service to others, they also learned lessons themselves. One race, he said, was filled with talented runners from Africa. Also entered was a boy whose disability left him with extremely short legs.

"At the beginning of the race, the boy immediately fell way behind," Lee recalled. "But one of the African runners ran in behind him, cheering him on for the entire race, giving up his own chance to win a medal. Even though the other runner had longer legs and was faster, he taught me the importance of having a `let-me-help-you' attitude."

The conference's theme was "Ye are the Light of the World." The youth, who were required to attend training sessions prior to the event, attended an orientation meeting Wednesday morning at the New Haven stake center.

After the youth watched skits demonstrating the dos and don'ts of youth conference, Ruth Norton talked to the group about how one person can make a difference in another person's life. She is an early-morning seminary teacher and also a Special Olympics official.

The subject of Sister Norton's talk was Robert, a medal-winning Special Olympics cyclist. Robert, she said, was born with a disability that led doctors to believe he would be unable to even walk or talk. Through his own determination and the support of family and friends, Robert achieved far more than was ever expected.

At age 14, Robert was able to be baptized and received the Aaronic Priesthood, Sister Norton continued. Weeks later, Bryson Mull, one of the smallest and newest deacons in the ward, approached 6-foot, 4-inch-tall Robert and asked him if he would like to pass the sacrament. Excited, Robert said yes. Sister Norton said that Bryson, who didn't have a tray of his own, stood with Robert to offer guidance and instruction through the passing of the sacrament.

Sister Norton explained how one young teenager, willing to take a risk and be his friend, made a big difference in Robert's life. Robert died a short time later at age 15, but was happy with his life, his friends, his relationship with his Savior and with his accomplishments.

Sister Norton then revealed that Robert was her son, and that she knew from her experience with him that each young person at the youth conference had the opportunity to make a big difference in someone else's life.

After the orientation, the youth traveled to the area around the Yale Bowl. Some were assigned to work in concessions where they came in contact with people from all over the world. The rest went to athletic events that included track and field, soccer, table tennis, tennis and volleyball. They donned purple T-shirts that were the official uniform of games volunteers and white hats with the youth conference logo emblazoned on the front so they could identify each other.

Sister Norton said that most of the volunteers were provided by businesses and she wasn't aware of any other youth groups participating.

"It made quite an impression for 400 youth from our Church to show up three straight days volunteering," she said after the games ended. "The games committee was impressed because our kids did their jobs and did them well."

Wednesday night the first of two youth conference dances was held. The other came after a long day of volunteer work Friday.

Thursday the group spread out to more sports venues to continue supporting the athletes. They attended weight lifting, basketball, badminton and gymnastics events. Some also went to the coast for the sailing event, with Aaronic Priesthood holders from the Trumbull 1st Ward serving as safety officers on the catamarans.

Friday the LDS volunteers spread out over all the venues to cheer some more. "People got more excited each day because they started to get to know the athletes," Ben said.

The youth conference wrapped up Saturday with workshops and a testimony meeting.

After the conference ended, several youth from the New Haven area returned to the Yale Bowl to cheer the soccer team from Qatar, a small country on the Persian Gulf, in its gold-medal match against Connecticut. They had discovered the Qatar team earlier and adopted it as their own. Ben said that about 10 LDS youth screamed for Qatar against 1,000 fans cheering for the locals, and the Qatar players gratefully shared the joy of their victory with their newfound friends.

"Everything ran smoothly," Sister Norton said after the conference. "The kids were working together and had a high level of enthusiasm."

Jaada Hales, New Haven stake Young Women president, said that although the youth were enthused, they seemed to have a reverent attitude about the service they were performing.

"I had more fun at this youth conference than any other I've attended," said Ben, who, as a leader in the stake youth council spent 110 hours in training and preparation. "Everyone pulled together. It was the most exciting thing I've done. We've been entertained before; we've had speakers who were famous athletes and things like that. But you can't beat going out and helping other people."

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