Raising the Roof: Young Humanitarians

A charity event is not the first place you expect to find teenagers on a Friday night. But don't tell that to Megan Beus, or Elisabeth and Erica Evans. These three Latter-day Saint teens have spent a lot of free time recently performing benefit concerts. They call themselves the Cleveland Teen Trio, and their efforts have built a school for a struggling refugee community in Zambia, Africa. "We play concerts," Erica, fourteen, says simply. "I play cello, Elisabeth plays the violin, and Megan plays the piano. We don't sell tickets--we just ask for donations." They have also sung and played for corporate events and released a chamber music CD, Prayer of the Children. "We wanted to do a service project, something where we could help someone," Erica continues. Then they learned of an impoverished African refugee community that was struggling to educate its children at a crowded one-room schoolhouse. Immediately the girls committed themselves to the cause. Within a short time, the girls raised the $13,500 needed to build the school, as well as staff and supply it. The girls sent the funds to Africa through Children of Ubumi, a nonprofit organization based in the Evans' town of Hudson, Ohio. The results were immediate. "New classrooms, completed to the roofline, were constructed in only three weeks," reports Penny Frese, a representative from Children of Ubumi. "This was a major accomplishment in Africa where machines are few, and construction is done by hand." Penny adds, "It has completely turned the community around. There is not much hope for these children unless they are educated. The new school will go a long, long way." h3. Teen Humanitarianism Let's face it. Most teenagers don't build schools in developing nations. In fact, teens have a reputation for being a little self-absorbed. But many young people do give their time to others. According to one study, more than forty percent of young people in the United States (ages 15-25 years) recently reported giving volunteer service during a twelve-month period--more volunteering than any other age group. Teens in the Church seem to be setting the pace for service among religious youth. According to one national study, seventy percent of teens in LDS families report participating in a religiously sponsored service project. That's more than twice the amount of teens overall (twenty-nine percent) who have done this kind of work. "The whole idea of children being able to effect changes in society is very powerful," says Penny Frese. "To some degree, they have the freedom to do this, which older people don't. And they have the idealism and the generosity of spirit. But it's also the simplicity and purity of their vision. What kinds of changes have happened because of the diary of Anne Frank?" Teens volunteer in many ways, but this article focuses on humanitarian service, which strives to meet basic human needs throughout the world. And young humanitarians are more plentiful than people think. Whether they're giving on a large scale, like the Cleveland Teen Trio, or quietly helping with small, local projects, all of them are making a difference in the world. Here's why and how. h3. Every Teen Has Something to Give Consider the story of fifteen-year-old Latter-day Saint Brandon Jackson of University Heights, Ohio. After hearing a school presentation about a colony of orphaned and neglected teenage boys in the mountaintops of Honduras, Brandon decided to help. "It just felt right to me," recalls Brandon. "The kids needed a lot of help, and I thought I could do my share." His share turned out to be more than ten thousand dollars raised through a variety of fund-raising events--and hard work during two trips to Honduras, where he helped to build a fish farm and teach English at the boys' school. But he thinks the biggest difference he's made has been one on one. Orphans in a sea of need all "seek identity," he has learned. "They go out of their way just to touch you, just so you will look at them and smile and give them the individuality they want. So you smile at them, hug them, teach them a new handshake--that is the most important thing to do." That one-on-one difference has taught him to be both realistic and positive about the difference one teen can make. "We have to choose where we want to serve," he says. "I will never be able to save the entire world. But to one person, I just might be the world." h3. Serving Benefits Those Who Serve Of course, it isn't just Zambian students and Honduran orphans who benefit from teen humanitarian service. Teens who give grow in spiritual and emotional maturity and gain practical, marketable skills. As one report entitled "America's Teenage Volunteers" puts it, "Teens who volunteer increase their knowledge of the world and the problems that face it. Volunteering affords teens both an opportunity to shape their communities and to receive lifelong personal benefits." Humanitarian service--with the humility and new perspective it brings--offers a powerful antidote to complacent or smug attitudes that may afflict youth in prosperous families. "I think I've learned to be more selfless, more generous with my time," says Megan, eighteen, about her work with the Cleveland Teen Trio. "All three of us had to learn that we were doing it for someone else." "It really kind of tears you up to see [the suffering]," says Brandon. "It makes you humble, makes you think about who you are, whether you're doing the right things. [In Honduras] the kitchen people would work in the hot kitchens for twelve hours to feed us--and they are starving. You'd get mad at yourself for being full." Brandon also feels more prepared to serve a mission or find employment in an increasingly global job market. "It's definitely helped me with social skills with another culture. I'm more prepared to immerse myself quicker. I know tricks to get myself around language barriers." The parents of these teens have noticed their progress too. "The compassion that develops is amazing," comments Lisa Evans, mother of Elisabeth and Erica Evans. "Erica's been reading this three-inch book about AIDS orphans in Africa. I don't think she'd have been at all interested if it hadn't been for this experience." "Part of being a teenager is being self-centered," admits Megan's mom, also named Lisa. "Any little thing happens and the world is ending. But to open their eyes, to learn that to flunk their driver's test is nothing compared to the suffering in the world ... That's part of learning and growing--learning that it isn't all about them." h3. Service Doesn't Get in the Way of Education Some parents may worry that humanitarian work will distract a young person from their educational pursuits. However, studies consistently show that students who volunteer are more likely to do well in school and finish college. Brandon's work in Honduras had actually increased his desire for a more successful career. "It drives me more to get a better education, just so I can help them more in Honduras. I want to do better in life so I can better serve them." One of the Evans' older daughters was accepted to a prestigious university in part because of her humanitarian work. "The director of admissions at Stanford wrote that it was her community service that made her stand out in the applicant pool," says Lisa Evans. "They wanted to have her compassionate voice on campus." Lisa sees another connection between service and education. "I think it takes drive, motivation, and tremendous focus to do these projects--the same things that help you do well in school," she says. "I tell my kids that everyone's smart and everyone's talented. The only way to set yourself apart is to work hard." Teens who serve prepare for their future as humanitarians. Erica knows that she'll be involved in future charitable work because she's seen both how fun and worthwhile it is. And Brandon has already committed himself to further efforts with the Honduran boys' village. "I love it there. Whenever I can, I will be down there." h3. Youth Service Inspires Others The examples of youth like Brandon, Megan, Erica, and Elisabeth are far-reaching. "It's not just what a teen can do for another person or group," comments Penny, representative of Children of Ubumi. "It's also how any person--especially a youth--can inspire others to good works. If children can do this, then what should we [as adults] not be capable of doing?" That's definitely true in Brandon's case. Several of his ward members held a multi-family garage and bake sale this past summer, which raised nearly $1,400 for the Honduran boys' orphanage. A member of his stake, who was living temporarily in the Philippines, heard of Brandon's work and said to herself, "If a fifteen-year-old boy can raise ten thousand dollars, I can certainly do something!" She and her two young daughters created and sold art prints and donated the $1,500 in proceeds--a small fortune in local currency--to a Philippine orphanage before leaving the Islands. Erica and Elisabeth Evans of the Cleveland Teen Trio were themselves inspired by their older sisters, who had performed significant service as teenagers. One had worked with disadvantaged youth locally and the other had raised funds for surgeries and health equipment needed by Chinese orphans. By the time Erica and Elisabeth reached their teen years, a family service tradition had been established. h3. How can families help their youth get involved? "Children are naturally idealistic," says Penny. "They really want to help other people. They just don't know how." But sometimes adults don't know how to get involved either. "We all have this unchanneled idealism--we don't know how to give our children the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life. Anything we can help them do--whether it's working with a group in Africa or going down to a homeless shelter and playing with the children or getting out meals--it's wonderful for children to do." Here are several tips for youth who want to make a difference and for parents who want to encourage them. h3. Follow the news and discuss civic issues. Studies show that when parents and children talk about world events, politics, and human suffering, volunteer service increases. Brandon grew up in a household where discussion of world events was par for the course. Both his parents worked in the news industry. "There was a lot more time spent in our home talking about issues foreign and domestic than in many homes," recalls Brandon's father Rick. "The conversations he heard--or overheard--about the state of the world when he was five, six, and seven years old, would likely have been far more in-depth, and possibly more honest, than most kids would ever hear." "He has heard me talk of being among people who lived in squalor, or people who were economically oppressed, while I was working in both Philadelphia and in Cleveland," Rick continues. "He has heard [his mother] Brenda talk of the days she was a newspaper writer in Mississippi and the incredible poverty she witnessed there. But we also would talk about those people who give of themselves and who do things to help remedy these situations." h3. Draw on existing strengths and interests. Teens have unique skills and interests that can often be used for the benefit of others: athletics, arts, web design, cooking, academics, crafts, construction, leadership, journalism, even socializing! "The hard part is finding something that your child can be interested in," says Lisa Beus. "With Megan, it's easy because she loves music, and people are used to paying money to go to concerts. With other kids, it might be more difficult to figure out how to use their talents and interests." h3. Parents can be a resource, too. "Look at your own strengths," Lisa Evans advises. "What connections or interests do you have? This is how you can help your child the most. Use something you know about, because they're just kids--it's hard for them to figure out how to get to Zambia without you." Or Honduras. Or the library tutoring program across town. h3. Don't be afraid to learn something new. Brandon hardly spoke a word of Spanish the first time he went to Honduras. But he found that "even with the language barrier, just being there and caring enough makes them extremely happy." By the end of his second trip to Honduras, his Spanish had improved enough to have a "passable conversation" with his new friends. h3. Start simply. To teens who want to give to others, Lisa Beus says to start simply. "Anything you give is better than nothing, be it five dollars or your time. Reach outside yourself as much as you're capable of, and you'll grow and learn. Take that first step. Do something." Brandon's efforts began with small projects at school. A clothing drive. A food drive. Making speeches on behalf of a charity. As his enthusiasm and experience grew, so did the scope of his humanitarian work. h3. Create a family tradition. Youth are more likely to become involved when others in the home set the example, as in the Evans family. Also, when children give at a young age, they are much more likely to become lifelong volunteers. Involving family members in a teen's project can unite the family while dividing the work. Megan's younger sisters were feeling a little jealous of all the attention Megan was getting for her service project--until they saw a slide show about the Zambian community. After that, Megan's sisters were happy to come to concerts and pass around contribution baskets. h3. Expose teens to service needs and opportunities--then let them volunteer. Erica Evans became aware as a child herself that other children suffer tremendously. At the age of ten, she visited the Chinese orphanage that her older sister worked with. "It really opened my eyes to how other people live," she recalls. "It just made me want to help more." This response isn't uncommon. Once kids learn there is a need, and that they can help, they often do. In one study, less than ten percent of teens reported turning down opportunities to volunteer. Megan also believes it's important to allow room for teenagers to choose to serve. "I would encourage but not force your kids to do it," she says. "Sometimes I see this at school--kids whine about it and only do it because their parents make them. You really have to want to do it. Otherwise it kind of defeats the purpose." h3. Partner with existing organizations. Studies show that most teens do their volunteer work with organized groups that provide youth with short-term, meaningful, results-oriented projects. Church, school, and community groups are all excellent places for a teen to experience humanitarian giving. Youth can also find out about service avenues through family and friends. "There are so many opportunities once you start looking," says Lisa Evans. "The best thing for us was to go through people we knew." This informal networking works well with teens; parents and youth will most likely be comfortable with a group that is recommended--or run--by people they know and trust. h3. Be prepared to sacrifice. All volunteer efforts cost something: time, energy, inconvenience, money, or other resources. Teens and parents should both assess--upfront--what they and their families are able to commit to a project. The Cleveland Teen Trio's efforts were an example of service that was both time-consuming and expensive. "It cost quite a bit of money to do this," warns Lisa Beus. "You have to be willing to sacrifice your time and your finances to help it happen." But other projects, both local and international in scope, aren't so demanding. Commitments of time and resources by a teen and family should be made realistically. h3. Continue participation in Church programs. Erica credits gospel teachings with giving her motivation to serve. "[The Church] teaches us to help others and to not be selfish with our own talents and our own time." Her mother agrees, and points to the spiritual training that Church programs provide. "Early morning seminary has been so valuable for my kids. It's daily, it's discipline, it's sacrifice, it's hard. It's learning to feel the Spirit. All the Church programs for teenagers have been instrumental in teaching about service. These projects are a chance to apply what they have learned." h3. Final Comments The youth in this article have had a lot of resources available to them. They came from families with established commitments to humanitarian service and had the resources to travel internationally. Not every teen starts with those same advantages. But Latter-day Saints believe in the potential of all our youth. We refer to them in broad, hopeful terms: the rising generation, the army of Helaman, the youth of the noble birthright. Every teen and every family have ideas, friends, talents, access to inspiration, and the ability to sacrifice. These are the essential elements of humanitarian service, whether performed on a smaller scale or a larger one. In the end, whether a teen raises thousands of dollars or helps clothe a homeless family, the results are all meaningful. Lives are touched, spirits are lifted, and the tight grip of poverty is loosened, even for a small while or for one soul. "It's a win-win situation," says Lisa Evans. "You're building schools for orphans in Africa and giving your own kids an opportunity of a lifetime. We're not just building a school, we're building teenage daughters."
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