Overcoming religious and ethnic barriers, 1,200 LDS and Catholic youth from the city of Gilbert, Ariz., worked side-by-side in a massive service project in this small, Hispanic town near Phoenix.
"Everyone is so pleased and amazed at what was done in a day," said assistant town manager Mary Hoy. "Some areas were completely transformed."The Interfaith Youth Service Project, held April 18, brought the youth together to serve others in Guadalupe but also to better themselves in the process.
"We got to work together and learned to put our differences aside," said Amanda Reidhead, 14, of the Gilbert 9th Ward, Gilbert Val Vista Stake. "I think we're learning that we're all really not that different. It's not only been good for the environment, but it's been good for us as people, too."
Amanda was one of more than a hundred youth who helped turn a retention basin into a community park by picking up used tires, laying 13,000 square-feet of sod, and planting trees.
The park project was just one of 15 separate activities going on throughout the day as part of the combined service project. Other groups of youth, all wearing donated, matching T-shirts, could be found around the town repairing or replacing mailboxes, removing rubbish, building ramps for wheelchairs, painting houses, furnishing emergency housing trailers, landscaping, or painting a mural on a noise wall near the freeway.
Aside from the physical work, there were also groups who were photographing and interviewing families and elderly people to be included in the town's history.
More than 100 businesses donated money and needed items such as gravel, trees, sod, paint, furniture, supplies and equipment to help the effort.
"This project became much bigger than I ever dreamed or anticipated," said Pres. John Lewis of the Gilbert Arizona Stake. "It was because people were excited about it. I heard someone say `the enthusiasm of the youth is contagious.' It's true."
The project was the third and largest one since the East Valley Youth Service Committee formed six months ago under the direction of Pres. Lewis and the Rev. Doug Lorig, pastor of St. Anne's Catholic Church in Gilbert.
"It was wonderful," said the Rev. Lorig. "There is evidence of us having been there; evidence of love and tolerance. But I think the youth needed the town more than the town needed the youth; our kids will all be better kids for it."
Last fall the two church leaders met and discussed ways in which the youth from the two religions could be brought together to foster better relationships within the community. As a result, 12 youths and two adult leaders representing the Catholic church and the five Gilbert stakes formed the service committee.
Their first project included 70 volunteers helping at a Phoenix food bank in November. Several weeks later 100 youths tied quilts and canned carrots at the LDS Cannery in Mesa.
Since then interest in the group has blossomed. Media stories have publicized the group's activities and the youth from both churches have talked about it at school and with their friends.
"This is the first step in bringing the two groups together and helping to ease tension," said James Mulhern, 14, of St. Anne's. "We've all made new friends."
"It's nice to see different religions getting together for a good cause," said Ryan Dompier, 16, of St. Anne's. "It's fun, too."
Elder R. Gordon Porter, Area Authority Seventy from Mesa, attended the project and observed that the number of youth participating and the work that was being accomplished was overwhelming. "It's interesting to see how it's brought two major religions together in a cooperative effort," he said.
"The people of the town of Guadalupe were so gracious to open their doors and accept the service," he added.
Pres. Lewis called the project a beautiful experience. "All those involved have been very receptive. I would encourage any ward or stake to do something similar. I think this is the sort of thing President [Gordon B.] Hinckley talked about at conference and wants us to be involved in."