Youth conferences. Young Women camps. High-adventure retreats. Treks. All these memory-makers — and several other forms of Church-sponsored summer youth activities — are making comebacks in 2021.
With COVID-19 rates diminishing in many parts of the world, and in areas deemed safe, young women and young men are recreating, learning and worshipping together at traditional summer events. They are strengthening relationships and developing leadership skills as they step away from daily routines and distractions.
“The Children and Youth program invites us to become like our Savior, to draw closer to Him by following His example in all areas of our life,” said Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon. “We hope every setting is a chance to represent our Savior in how we act and what we contribute. To see others as the Savior would. To act as He would with kindness and love.
“Any summer activity is an opportunity to strive to become like our Savior and share His light with others. We can also use what we are learning to bless our families and others,” she said.
Fortifying relationships is what excites Young Men General President Steven J. Lund the most about a return to traditional Church summer youth activities. Relationships remain integral for young people — and Latter-day Saints of all ages.
“And not just between leaders and youth, but between youth and youth,” he said. “The past year has been uniquely character building. But now, we’re going to be able to spend some intense time building character in sensory rich outdoor environments where our youth and their leaders can do things that matter and build those relationships that can help carry them all into the future.”
Brother Ahmad S. Corbitt, first counselor in the Young Men general presidency, said: “Youth absolutely can have fun ministering to other youth in or outside the Church. Wholesome fun activities are a wonderful and godly way to gather Israel and help others along the covenant path, especially now that we can do more in person.”
Seth Tobler, a 17-year-old priest in the Bennington Ward, Montpelier Idaho Stake, recently participated in a high-adventure activity with his fellow young men in the red rocks of Escalante, Utah. The group hiked into Coyote Gulch.
“It gave us all time to be around each other and get to know each other a lot better, find out different things about each other,” he said. “And now I feel like we’re all closer and better friends.”
After many months of seeing people “in tiny boxes on computer screens,” President Cordon said, “I’m thrilled that we can see each other face to face. That we can laugh, talk, hug and renew friendships. The Lord promised that where two or more are gathered, He would be with us. I know that is true and I believe He too will rejoice as we gather. Youth can continue to feel the Savior’s love ― together.”
Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men general presidency, spoke of recently speaking at a devotional in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When the in-person gathering ended, many of the youth remained. After being physically separated for so long, they simply didn’t want to be apart.
“They were connecting,” he said. “This summer will be a wake-up call for a lot of kids who have maybe been ‘sleeping’ a bit, spiritually, during COVID-19. [The summer activities] will remind them of what they are a part of and that their friends are part of that.”
Sister Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, said one of the many lessons she learned during the last year is that “we need each other.”
“We simply cannot grow and learn like we need to in isolation,” she said. “There will surely be those that need what we have to offer — a smile, a hug, a passing comment or listening ear. I hope that as our youth, and all of us, return to gathering in person, we can pray to have eyes to see who we can lift and bless in small and simple ways.”
Building youth leaders
Church-sponsored summer activities provide youth with invaluable leadership opportunities, President Lund said. “If everyone works together, the youth are going to be better leaders by the end of the summer than they are today. It’s important that the advisers allow them to lead and make decisions.”
Kristin Howcroft, stake Young Women president in the Queen Creek Arizona South Stake, credits the success of her stake’s Young Women camp last week to the youth camp leaders.
“We really took to heart that the [youth camp leaders] plan it this year, and we really pulled them in on everything. … They really put the effort and energy into making this what our stake needed,” Howcroft said.
By listening to the youth camp leaders, the camp experience became what the young women needed — “not what we thought as leaders they needed,” she said. “They are so much more amazing as leaders than we are. For me, this was such a magical year, to really let them do what they do best, and that’s to help their peers and friends become better and feel the love of Christ.”
Read more: How to support youth in planning Young Women camp and making it a place to ‘grow in unity and love’
Hailey Davis, 16, of the Mountain Vista Ward, was one of the youth camp leaders. Though she was nervous and could hardly sleep the night before, she said this year’s Young Women camp was an unforgettable experience making connections with the other girls.
“I loved to see all of the aspects that come into being a [youth camp leader] — with leading, to the responsibilities, to the fun, to the spiritual,” she said. “I just loved being able to be at the front of that and see all of the different emotions going through all of these girls and to be able to see them get out of their comfort zone.”
Hailey’s fellow youth camp leader, Ella Waite, 16, of the Morningside Ward, gave this advice to make Young Women camp the best experience it can be: “If you put in a lot to try to get something out of camp, you’ll receive so many blessings, and you’ll just learn so much.”
President Cordon echoed Ella’s counsel: “Joining with the members of your class and quorum is sometimes as much about what we can give as it is about what we get. We need to be there for each other. I hope youth will come to every activity and ask, ‘Who can I serve or bless while I am here?’”
Stepping away from distractions
Some young men and young women will be participating in traditional youth conferences on college campuses or at stake centers. Others will be more outdoorsy and adventuresome — including river rafting, camping and hiking.
Regardless of the itineraries, it is Brother Wilcox’s hope that each youth participant seizes the opportunity to set aside phones and devices and connect with those around them. Deepened relationships will be their reward.
“My advice for a kid going to a youth conference: Don’t freak out if you’re going through phone withdrawal and feeling phantom vibrations,” he said, laughing. “Just be willing to go and be present. Enjoy the moment, and don’t worry about missing something.”
Lehi and his family experienced life-changing growth when they left the familiar comforts of Jerusalem and “dwelt in a tent.” Some youth this summer will literally be dwelling in a tent, like Lehi, during their activities. For others, dwelling in a “tent” will be symbolic of their decisions to step away from their daily routines.
President Lund said: “That’s when they can step away from the distractions of the world and can actually hear the Spirit with higher sensitivity as it responds to their own needs.”
Today’s young Latter-day Saints are busier than ever, especially during the summer break from school. Some are competing on club sports teams or prepping for school fall sports. Many are working full-time jobs to earn money for college, missions or to help their families. Some are heading off to band camps or college prep test retreats.
But the Church’s general youth presidencies hope Latter-day Saint youth make Church summer activities a priority.
“We want to be in places where the Spirit can dwell; where we can learn more about our Savior and become more like Him,” said Sister Rebecca L. Craven, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency. “The Savior taught that if we seek the Kingdom of God first, good things will follow. We know sometimes there are real conflicts, but we also know that choosing the Lord and His Church will always bring blessings.”
President Lund added: “Nobody ever left the Church because they didn’t know how to tie a square knot or play the guitar. They leave the Church because when the wind starts blowing, they don’t have the spiritual moorings to hold them to truth.
“And so if you’re investing in yourself, there isn’t anything that’s going to be going on this summer that will better prepare you to lean into the winds that will blow than Church summer service and activities.”