With temptation and peer pressure more abundant than ever, the young men and young women of the Church need anchors to hold them fast to the principles of the gospel. This is the mission of the Especially for Youth (EFY) programs sponsored through Brigham Young University. Through these activities, teens can receive precious spiritual gifts of faith, testimony, and preparedness to anchor their souls in the gospel.
The scriptures often teach of gifts and the many rewards that can be obtained in this life. But of all the gifts we could hope to receive, there is one far better than the rest—the Greatest Gift, as it is referred to—that of eternal life (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). It is on this theme, “The Greatest Gift,” that the 2006 Especially for Youth programs will be focused.
In the Beginning
EFY first evolved as an inspiration of Ron Hills, who was working in Youth and Family programs in 1976. He believed that it would be good for young people in outlying areas to have an opportunity to get together in a youth conference setting and have a spiritual and social experience together.
“As I recall,” remembered Randy Bird (an EFY Director and Instructor), “we almost cancelled that first EFY due to a small enrollment. At the last minute, a stake from California mailed in enough registrations to put us over the top to hold the first EFY.” That year there was just one session, 172 participants, and 15 counselors. And the cost? Just $66.50 for the week per participant.
Two years later, Pete Kadish, now Administrative Assistant for EFY at BYU, attended his first EFY session. “I joined the Church in April of 1978 while living in California, just before graduating from high school. I was seventeen years old at the time and had virtually no knowledge of or experience with LDS people or their culture. But, I had been taught well by some great missionaries, I had gained a powerful testimony, and I was anxious to surround myself with all of the goodness the Church had to offer.” That summer he took a seasonal job working on a farm in Driggs, Idaho where he first heard about EFY.
Being a new convert and not being raised in the LDS culture, Pete was unaware of how many kids his age were actually in the Church. To be in the company of hundreds of LDS teens at EFY was one of several profound spiritual experiences he had that would set the stage for the rest of his life.
“The great examples I saw at EFY, coupled with incredible leadership and spiritual instruction, influenced my life beyond expression,” he said. “It was comforting to know that there were so many other kids facing the same challenges I was, and that together we could all find faith and strength through livinging the gospel.” It has been almost twenty-eight years since Pete Kadish attended that first session, and now he has the privilege of working as an administrator for the very same program. “Wherever EFY is held, whether at BYU or in Florida, and regardless of the session size, whether 200 or 1,500 youth,” said Pete, “the spirit of EFY remains the same.”
Learning to Leave the World Behind
Lee Harmon Nielsen knows a thing or two about EFY. Throughout her teenage years she attended from her home in South Carolina a total of two weeklong, overnight stay sessions one each in Florida and Georgia, and three such sessions at Southern Virginia College (now University) in Buena Vista, Virginia.
“I wanted to go to EFY to get out and meet other people that had my standards and beliefs,” said Lee. ”I had a lot of friends at school, but none of them ever had the special friendship that I shared with the kids from church. I wanted more of those kinds of friendships and I started to learn how to leave the world behind.” Lee’s sister, Nivette Harmon Connors, attended an Especially for Youth program in Virginia when she was fourteen.
“I was really shy back then,” shared Nivette. “Looking back now, however, I think my testimony did grow, although I might not have realized it at the time. The whole experience is something I just internalized and used to grow in life. My best memory is when I played a song I’d written for piano at the EFY talent show. Playing the piano was the only way I was used to coming out of my shell back then, so it was pretty exciting with the applause and everything.”
On the other side of the country, Jeff Beck traveled from Oregon to Utah to attend an EFY session at BYU. When asked what he enjoyed most about his experience, several things came to mind.
“Where do I start? Meeting new people, being around a bunch of LDS people, the talks and lessons from really cool people, messing around with my new friends, the list goes on,” he said. “I learned lots of things, but a few specific ones are: Never leave your food unattended when you are sitting with a group of guys, darkness can never overpower light, and Christ is always there for me. When you are surrounded every second of the day with spirituality, truth, and knowledge, you can’t help but have some of it rub off on you.”
A Parent’s Perspective: Worth Every Penny
While EFY programs have a tremendous impact on the kids, parents and families also benefit.
“EFY was especially good for my kids who live in the ‘mission field’ and who were one of only a few members in their grade or school. It was great for them to meet so many members in such a fun social atmosphere,” said Theresa Harmon, whose family now lives in Tennessee. Four of her five children have attended EFY programs. “They did lots of fun things, but also saw others like them wanting to know more about the gospel and working side-by-side with them in service projects.”
For the Harmons, EFY was an opportunity for their children to be taught gospel truths by others outside of the family and local Church circles. Theresa remembers when her daughter Lee came home from an EFY session in Florida so excited about writing in her journal and reading her scriptures. “We thought, ‘Wow, someone else is reinforcing what we’ve been trying to stress all along.’” “I wanted to give them opportunities for spiritual growth in a fun but safe environment, but also one in which they still had some freedom from being under my watch,” said Linda Rhoden. “Even though my kids were good kids to begin with, I noticed their spiritual habits improve, and saw them become more steady.”
For some, the cost of the overnight programs, which has increased to several hundred dollars since that first session in 1976), might be a deterrent to attending EFY. Some families may qualify for financial aid, while others encourage their teens to earn the money themselves.
“My older boys paid their own way since they both had paper routes,” said Linda. “My daughter Becky didn’t pay for her first year because it was our gift to her since we were moving from the area and she would be leaving all her friends. She is saving her money now, though, and will pay for this summer’s EFY.”
In addition to sessions conducted around the country and Canada, youth living in Salt Lake City and northern Utah areas also have the option of attending day programs taught at various Institutes of Religion throughout the region. In these programs, kids sleep at home and travel back and forth to the Institute each day. They experience the same camaraderie and spirituality of the overnight programs, with a considerably smaller price tag of about $55.
Colleen Fulks of Farmington, Utah appreciated the option of the lower cost sessions when her son and four neighborhood friends attended an EFY program at the Ogden Institute on the campus of Weber State University. Each boy’s mother took a day during the week to make the forty-five-mile round trip to the Institute.
“I didn’t mind taking them and going and getting them,” said Colleen. “When my older daughter attended EFY at BYU, I didn’t hear about what was going on. It was different having James going back and forth. The boys had put together a drum performance for the talent show and played those drums all the way home one night. I think he had just as much fun, and I was kind of a part of it.”
Behind the Scenes: Gaining Trust and Teaching Truth
Being chosen to serve as an EFY counselor is more than just filling out a job application. According to the EFY website, [ce.byu.edu/yp/efy], applicants for any Continuing Education Youth Program must be members of the Church in good standing, and are expected to set strong examples in three specific ways: “By living the gospel of Jesus Christ and showing by example the joy and happiness which comes with that commitment, by teaching effectively the gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the standard works and the words of the living prophets, and by administering appropriately by following the teachings and principles of Christlike leadership.”
Scott Stonehocker attended EFY for four years in his native Canada, then was hired as a counselor after he returned from his mission. He first worked at EFY sessions in Alberta, Canada and then moved to Utah in 2003 when he was hired as a coordinator. “I love seeing the young men and young women open up in such a short time,” said Scott, “to see their eyes light up and their hearts soften as Thursday and Friday roll around. There aren’t too many other jobs where you get to see kids, in such a short amount of time, begin to feel the happiness of the gospel and realize their place in it.”
As a presenter and youth speaker, John Bytheway is aware of the unique position he and other teachers hold being involved with EFY. “I feel the responsibility to teach true doctrine. If the participants like you personally, but haven’t learned a thing, then you’ve failed as a teacher,” he said. “You want them to fall in love with the scriptures and to feel the Spirit while they’re there. Teaching a class at EFY is a very unusual experience—the kids want to be there, they want to learn, and when you ask them to open up their scriptures, there are no groans or yawns; they do it, and they’re hungry for more. They laugh, they participate, they ask questions—it’s a teacher’s dream.”
Going Home: Making the Moments Last
Early on in the development of EFY it was decided that one way to determine the success of the program was if the participants took what they gained at EFY home with them. Youth receive a CD of inspirational music and spiral notebook which contains, among other things, ideas on goal setting and testimony bearing as well as quotes, scriptures, and plenty of room for note taking.
“Although EFY is a short five days, I think that the teens get a glimpse of who they should be, how they should act, and what it feels like to leave the world and draw closer to Christ,” shared Scott. “Sometimes they go back to bad habits after the week is over, but for many, they have tasted it and they start to make changes. I think it leaves a reference point in their hearts of how they should be and who they can become.”
For Lee Nielsen, the real test of what she learned as a teen at Especially for Youth sessions came when she returned home. “It was nice to have a network of friends that I still kept in touch with from the week, and it helped me know others out there were going through the same trials,” she said. “And if they could do it, so could I.”
“Many parents have commented on how the EFY experience changed their child,” said Randy Bird. “I believe it is because they live for that week the principles and doctrines of the gospel as taught by the prophets and found in the scriptures. That can’t help but cause a mighty change in a person.”
That mighty change, and the ability to prepare for receiving the greatest gift of eternal life, is a lifelong process, and one that EFY endeavors to contribute to.
Randy’s best memory of his years with EFY centered on a group of boys who were intent on ruining the experience for others. Randy took the time to sit with these boys one day at lunch and had a meaningful visit with them. After that, he saw a significant change in the boys who, by week’s end, had become a positive influence on the rest of the participants.
“A few years later, I received phone calls from each of that small group informing me of their mission calls. It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s what the spirit can do for an individual, and that’s the desire of EFY: to facilitate a climate that invites the Spirit.”