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“Decorating Someone Else’s Service,” by Lehua Parker

Last night my daughter stormed into the kitchen spitting nails after her Young Women’s activity. “Do you know what we did?” “Is this a trick question?” I asked. “Do you need bail money?” “No.” I put down the frying pan and placed a finger on my temple, channeling my inner psychic. “I’m getting a picture.” I fake swooned. “Lots of teenage girls. Loud girls. All in a room. An LDS church, maybe? The mists of time are unclear.” My daughter sighed and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. No one knows how she suffers with a mother like me. “Mom, our activity was making little toy lizards to go on backpacks.” “Okaaay,” I said, dunking the pan into the dishwater. “And the earth-shattering problem is you didn’t want one for your backpack?” Crunch. “The lizards weren’t for us.” Smack, apple slurp. “They were for kids in Africa. It was a service project. I asked how tiny beaded lizards were a service project—wouldn’t starving kids in Africa rather have a sandwich?” “Well—” “I’d rather have a sandwich.” “Honey—” “You know what Sister Johnson said? The beaded lizards aren’t even toys; they’re just fun little things to attach to the outsides of backpacks.” “So it’s the start of a humanitarian project. That’s good. What do you need to bring—” She dropped the apple core in the trash. “You’re not getting it. It’s not the start; it’s the end. Other people already filled the backpacks with things kids need.” She spun her finger in the air and tossed her hair back. “This wasn’t a service project—this was decorating someone else’s service project.” She flopped on a bar stool, deeply and thoroughly disgusted. I heard her loud and clear. In her mind there was a critical need, but others thought her and the rest of the Young Women capable of only a trivial contribution. But I also understood why the YW leaders thought creating little beaded lizards was a brilliant weekly activity: service project, check; fun thing to do, check; simple and inexpensive, check; all girls can participate, check. Four checkmarks. Awesome-sauce. Now who has an idea for the following week? There is one inescapable fact of Mormonism—it requires a lot of volunteer work from its members. And sometimes people don’t grasp all of the purposes and reasons behind what’s being asked of them. As volunteer leaders, we mostly figure it out in the middle of doing—moments of grace and insight that only come through trial and error—and about the time we really get it, it’s someone else’s turn to learn. I’ve sat in YW leadership meetings and heard the old wives’ tale (spoken in the hushed and reverent tones reserved for quoting General Authorities) that if the YW activities aren’t fun, the girls won’t come. Newbie YW leaders hear this and make the cognitive leap that non-fun equals inactivity; that’s bad. No YW leader wants to be the one who derailed an entire generation’s eternal progression. Fun equals participation and all things good. Focus on the fun, we think, and salvation will follow. The irony, of course, is that this logic results in six years of blithely beading lizards, lizards that only decorate someone else’s care packages. Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten why we wanted girls at YW activities in the first place. Every summer brings girls’ camp, another fantastic opportunity to master wilderness challenges, bolster testimonies, and build friendships. I’ve seen YW campers shoot down white water rapids, hike down Havasupai Falls in 110 degree heat, and rappel down cliffs—knees shaking and fists clenched in triumph at the bottom. I’ve seen them make detergent from scratch, build lean-tos, navigate by starlight, teach first-aid, and tie quilts for homeless shelters. I’ve also seen YW camps held in somebody’s vacation cabin with catered meals delivered thrice daily. I’ve seen leaders decide a twenty-minute meander with a water bottle and granola bar is the equivalent of a second year’s recommended five-mile hike with a nutritious self-prepared meal. I get it. It’s a serious pain to set up tents and a bigger one to get them from the Scout Master. It’s also far easier if adults plan, shop, and cook all the meals—and we award ourselves bonus points for doing it without smoky campfires, wonky propane burners, or worrying about ice. Throw in some spiritual thoughts, a couple of crafts, and check, check, check—girls’ camp is done. So easy and fun! But that’s not the point. Young women need to do hard things in order to learn that they can. They need experiences that teach them that their service has real value. And that takes time, effort, and a non-checklist mentality from adult leaders. To do less is to underestimate them—and ourselves. God never said it would be easy, only worth it. Draped over a bar stool, my daughter told me about her idea, an idea that started with YW selling beaded lizards as a fundraiser and then reinvesting the profits, eventually turning trivial decorations into clean water wells, newborn kits, and school supplies. She’s spooky analytical like that. But beyond asking why beaded lizards, she didn’t say a word. She’s learned that at YW activities girls are expected to put shoulders to wheels and have fun. Don’t be a know-it-all who sees things differently. By words and deeds, YW leaders reinforce what they value. Unfortunately, what my daughter is seeing is the path of least resistance, the least challenging and time consuming, is the best. After all, it’s far easier to push a handcart along in a well-established rut than to strike off into uncharted wilderness. On her way up the stairs to her bedroom she paused. “You know, Mom, when I’m grown up I hope I get to be a YW leader. That way I can make sure we do something real.” Me, too.

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