Brad Wilcox, John Bytheway, BYU professors talk EFY and how the program has set up FSY for the perfect beginning

Long before Jeremy Guthrie was a mission president, he was a teen participant one summer at Brigham Young University’s Especially for Youth.

Brad Wilcox, a longtime popular speaker at EFY, recalled meeting young Guthrie in a class. Wilcox had no clue Guthrie was a star high school athlete or that he would one day play major league baseball. He had only observed him listening intently during class.

“I knew he had felt the Spirit,” Wilcox said. “I saw the light go on.”

After class, Wilcox pulled Guthrie aside and told him he would be a great missionary and challenged the young man to not let anything stop him from going.

Guthrie told Wilcox those words came back to him when he was offered a million-dollar contract to play baseball if he would forget serving a mission. He didn’t take the money but instead served a two-year mission in Spain.

In 2015, Guthrie helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. One year after retiring from baseball, the 38-year-old Guthrie was called as president of the Texas Houston South Mission, where he now serves. 

“To me, Jeremy will always be a valiant young teenager who recognized and followed the Spirit,” said Wilcox.

Guthrie is one of thousands to come away from EFY with a positive spiritual experience since the religious camp was started more than 40 years ago. 

Brad Wilcox teaches a class at Especially for Youth in 2000.
Brad Wilcox teaches a class at Especially for Youth in 2000. Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Now, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is modeling its new For the Strength of Youth program after EFY in hopes of blessing even more lives. 

Hank Smith, a BYU professor and EFY speaker for the last 20 years, is excited for this new chapter. 

“I think the Lord started this program back when it was awesome but not crucial. He gave it 40 years to grow,” Smith said. “Now right when the Church absolutely needs it, it is ready. I believe FSY can become an integral part of what it means to grow up in the Church over the next few decades. There will be tens of thousands of teens who will be inspired and changed because of this program.” 

Laura Welch, who attended EFY as a young teen and has been a speaker for years, agreed. 

“The reason this is happening is because EFY changes lives,” Welch said. “They are taking EFY to the masses.”

Wilcox, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU involved in EFY since 1985, is also thrilled about the change. 

“This will extend the positive results of EFY to even more youth,” Wilcox said. “The program gives youth a chance to bond with other young people who share their same high standards and desires. It connects youth with young single adult role models that stand as touchable heroes. They see it is possible to have fun and live the gospel at the same time. They see how scripture study and prayer can become part of a daily routine. They hear gospel messages from teachers who really know how to connect with youth. They are able to experience a blend of spiritual, social and educational opportunities that make a difference in their commitment to love and live the gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

Church to model conferences after Especially For Youth for stakes in U.S., Canada — BYU will discontinue traditional EFY sessions

While BYU will continue to offer limited EFY Special Edition and Express sessions, speakers, former counselors and participants will remember their EFY experiences with fondness.  

“I love EFY and will miss it,” said Casey Griffiths, another BYU professor who has been associated with EFY for many years. “I think it was a wise move to remove the exclusivity of the program and make it more broadly available. We scrimped and saved to get our kids to EFY, but not every family in our ward and stake were able to manage it. Now the blessings associated with this EFY will reach a lot more youth and help them have the transformative experiences that lead to true conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the end of an era, but the beginning of new and exciting season of opportunity for the youth of the Church.”

Launched in 1976

Few know more about the early years of EFY than author and speaker John Bytheway. 

Not only has he served as a counselor, administrator and speaker, but he documented the first decade of EFY in his master’s thesis. He also met his wife at EFY, he said.

“It completely changed my life,” Bytheway said.

EFY started in 1976 with the vision of Ronald C. Hills and others in BYU’s Continuing Education. They wanted to create an “Education Week for teenagers,” Bytheway wrote in his thesis. 

The first session was almost canceled due to low enrollment. Hill anticipated 500 attendees but only 147 initially signed up. At the last minute, a packet with 25 more names registered, and the first session went forward with 172 young men and women, ages 14-18. Tuition was $66.50. 

Support staff for the first session included three supervising counselors to help plan and administer evening activities, dances and outdoor games, along with 12 BYU student counselors to accompany the youth, provide supervision and conduct an evening prayer meeting. The participants stayed in Helaman Halls. A group of seminary teachers taught classes on dating, Church standards, goal-setting, missionary work and other topics, according to Bytheway’s research. 

Elder Hartman Rector Jr., who served in the First Quorum of the Seventy, spoke at a Wednesday morning devotional. Bytheway also noted that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a future member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, participated in the first session of EFY as a banquet speaker in the Wilkinson Center.  

EFY only grew from there.

From 1976 to 2016, more than 880,000 youth attended nearly 1,775 EFY sessions, according to the BYU website

While organizers knew they had a good thing going early on, they worried it might get too big. But things have worked out, Bytheway said.

The decision to have FSY conferences comes one year after President Russell M. Nelson asked young men and women to enlist in the Lord’s youth battalion and gather Israel on both sides of the veil. The timing for this change seems perfect, said Bytheway.

“It’s unifying youth all over the world,” he said. 

Reflecting on where EFY has come from, Bytheway thought of Hills, who died in 2007, and others who helped along the way. 

“I wish Ron was still alive,” Bytheway said. “To see the Church adopt something modeled after what we were working on in the early 1980s is wonderful. Ron would just be thrilled.”

Teaching and tuition

At one point, EFY was criticized for being “all fun and fluff with no substance,” Bytheway said. Organizers responded by encouraging speakers to give greater emphasis to the scriptures and the words of living prophets. They also made it a requirement for participants to bring their scriptures as a ticket into class. The response was positive, Bytheway said.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Bytheway said. “I think this helped with the quality of teaching and helped create a love of the scriptures in the youth.”

David Butler, an institute teacher at Utah Valley University and EFY speaker, said EFY is one of the best learning environments a teacher can ask for because the students are excited and want to learn.

“As a seminary teacher you worry about people who don’t want to be there and discipline issues, but that’s rare at EFY,” Butler said. “There’s an electric feel in the room. The youth are ready and hungry to learn but there’s also room to laugh and have fun. It’s sort of magical and sparks faith in people.”

Even in these large learning environments with hundreds of students gathered together, Butler has found evidence time and again of the Lord ministering to each individual.

Brad Wilcox speaks to a classroom of youth at Especially for Youth in 2000.
Brad Wilcox speaks to a classroom of youth at Especially for Youth in 2000. Credit: BYU Photos

“He’s reaching their hearts in different ways through different people,” Butler said.

In 2017, BYU professors John Hilton III and Anthony Sweat conducted a study (“Developing Teenage Testimonies: Programs and Pedagogy with Spiritual Impact“) that identified two things that had the greatest impact on the testimonies of young people — seminary and EFY.  The study, published in the Religious Educator, concluded EFY was a “very spiritually impactful program.”

“While EFY is cost prohibitive for many teens and their parents, we recommend to readers to help youth find ways to fund, attend and participate in EFY due to its apparent high spiritual impact,” Hilton and Sweat wrote. “Moreover, those planning large-scale events for youth might investigate and implement elements of the EFY program that may lead to spiritual impact.”

As the study mentioned, tuition over the years was a concern. 

In 2019, an overnight session cost $525. Stay-at-home sessions ranged from $255 to $290 and special sessions at Church history sites were $650, according to BYU.

Church releases new information about FSY starting in 2020. Here’s how it impacts you

The high cost was a valid concern, said Griffiths, who serves as a bishop in Saratoga Springs.

“I think the move to FSY will solve a lot of those problems and help more youths to have an experience a lot like EFY without breaking the bank,” the BYU assistant teaching professor said. “A lot of the problems I saw are going to be corrected with the FSY approach. EFY isn’t ending, it’s expanding to be something that will include all the youth of the Church, not just the few with the money and connections to attend.”

The counselors

Along with high quality instruction, several speakers attribute EFY’s true success to the counselors, stalwart young adults and often returned missionaries, who over the course of a week become those “touchable heroes,” Wilcox said. 

Bytheway said his own children once told him, “he’s nice,” but their EFY counselor is “the coolest.”

“The greatest impact is from the counselors, not the speakers,” Bytheway said. “Some kids didn’t know you could be cool and be a Latter-day Saint at the same time. That’s one of the things EFY did. It’s always been the counselors.”

Jared Bryson appreciated his counselor and others who had a positive influence on him as an “impressionable” 15-year-old EFY participant in 1995. Although weird at first, Bryson came to value the nightly devotionals of testimony and prayer, led by his counselor. He also learned things that greatly strengthened his faith. Bryson said his experience at EFY was a turning point in his spiritual life.

“I’m thankful for EFY as it taught me faith, companionship, prayer works, miracles can be performed by God’s will, appropriate associations with girls and how awesome a college campus can be. It taught me to come out of my egg shell of shyness and to be bold, enlightened and to share with others,” said Bryson, who went on to serve a mission in Chile and serve in many Church callings. “I have not shrunk since.”

While most participants like Bryson wanted to be at EFY and sought similar experiences, others have not. Griffiths recalled one time as a counselor dealing with three boys who he described as “absolutely awful … disrespectful, rude and just downright abusive to the other kids,” he said.

“The first few days were tough and it felt more like babysitting than gospel teaching,” Griffiths said.

As the week continued, the boys had some experiences that helped them open up. One day the boys met missionaries from another faith who tried to give them anti-Mormon material. The boys defended the Church. 

Near the end of the week, the trio broke down. One boy told about his father’s death and apologized for his behavior. He said he was angry with God but was finally at peace thanks to lessons he had learned that week. 

“By the last day they were all fast friends,” Griffiths said. “I really learned not to judge a book by its cover.”

Lasting friendships

Another endearing element of EFY for so many has been the lasting friendships. For many young Latter-day Saints outside of Utah who rarely associated with other members, attending an EFY session was a big deal. 

Kaleb Roosa was one of them. Growing up in Colorado, he was grateful to interact with a small group of friends and leaders but felt he barely had “a foothold on the fringe” of church.

That changed dramatically when he attended EFY. 

“Instead of the same few kids that I saw every week at church, I was surrounded by a diverse group of believers from the entire country,” Roosa said. “This realization made me feel so much more supported even when I returned home, as I knew that there were others all around the world facing the same challenges and struggles that come with being a religious teenager. I was not alone in my efforts to stand as a witness of Christ.”

Youth from Chile participate in an Especially for Youth session.
Youth from Chile participate in an Especially for Youth session. Credit: Deseret News Archives

Another benefit of EFY for Roosa was the spiritual growth and increased gospel knowledge. It helped that he could learn from counselors closer to his age and mix things up with fun activities, he said.

“At EFY I spent a full five days studying the teachings of Christ,” Roosa said. “Such a concentrated effort allowed me to reach spiritual highs that strengthened my testimony in a lasting way. … Overall the casual but spiritual nature of EFY was conducive to me learning a ton about the gospel.”

The friendships also meant something to the speakers, even years later. While teaching institute, it’s not uncommon for a student to approach Butler and say, “Do you remember me from EFY?”

“It’s cool,” Butler said. “Making a connection in a spiritual environment creates a long-lasting memory.”

Lessons from EFY

An experience Paula Diaz had at EFY later brought her back to the Church. 

She grew up in the Church and attended EFY before starting high school. She recalled attending a class on music and entertainment, taken from the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, where she learned that hymns and religious music can be like a prayer that invites the Spirit.

A few years later Diaz drifted away from Church activity. While on a road trip with friends late one night, the girls became alarmed when they saw the gas gauge was almost on empty. The girls “jokingly but with some seriousness” asked Diaz to pray. She felt like because she had turned away from the gospel she couldn’t pray. 

Then Diaz recalled her lesson about good music inviting the spirit, and found two old EFY songs: “I Am His Daughter” and “He Knows Me Better.” The music invited a faint but warm feeling to her heart. They eventually found a gas station and Diaz knew that the Lord played a role in it.

The experience didn’t “jolt” her back to Church, but led her to say a personal prayer that night in the hotel bathroom, her first in two years. A weekend that started out with her telling her mother she would never return to the Church ended with her sitting in a Church parking lot weeping and wanting to come home, she said.

“I never wanted to lose the feeling I had of God’s love for me,” Diaz said. “I returned to Church and lost every friend I had … but remembered how it felt to be in EFY, surrounded by people my same faith, that helped me to know that I wasn’t alone even if no one around me accepted me.”