One of the best ways to gain perspective on your life—its ups and downs, joys and obstacles—is to venture out of your own back yard. Stepping away, even for a short time, creates space around the things that vex you, and helps your problems seem a little more surmountable. In that space, in relationship to others, you might also remember that you’re not alone. People outside your home, your town and your country are not so different, despite how different our lives might appear.
This realization is at the core of Youthlinc’s work, which could be summed up in the phrase “compassion in action.” Youthlinc was formed after Utah secondary schoolteacher Judy Zone took a trip to Kenya with her daughter in 1999. Judy’s daughter had always been service minded and had volunteered in her community during high school. In Kenya, they observed the plight of Kenya’s poor, but noted that unlike in the U.S., Kenya’s homeless and hungry had no volunteers feeding them under the viaducts. This inspired Judy to look for a way to help students make a connection between local and international service.
Over the next year, she conceived of Youthlinc, an organization that would give students the opportunity to experience the happiness that comes from serving others and perspective that comes from experiencing cultures other than their own. In Youthlinc’s first year, 20 students traveled to Kenya to participate in service projects. According to Office Manager Heather McMaster, there are now roughly 260 volunteers. In 2014, Youthlinc sponsored 17 international trips to six different sites around the world. Students from 10th grade to grad school participate.
Service in Your Own Back Yard
Youthlinc’s program combines both local and international service. Participants in their Service Year program perform 80 hours of local community service before embarking on the international trips. “Our mission is to create lifetime humanitarians,” says Heather. “In order to do so, we needed to teach people that there are needs in our own back yards. It’s a very pivotal part in our program. Not everyone has a couple thousand dollars to go and do service in Kenya, but anyone can do service right here at home.”
There’s a wide variety of local populations students can focus on. Heather says that they let students gravitate to the populations that most interest them—the elderly, hospice patients, refugee communities and at-risk youth. Students are required to perform at least 40 hours of service in one place, and the service must involve direct interaction with other people.
International trips take place in June and July. This year, Youthlinc sponsored 17 service trips, including two back-to-back trips to Thailand. Current service sites are located in Cambodia, Guatemala, Kenya, Nepal, Peru and Thailand. Trips are two weeks long and focus on five different areas of service: education, community health, vocational, business and cultural exchange. Adult mentors—professionals such as doctors, nurses and teachers—help mentor the students and provide direction. Projects depend on the needs of the village and the talents and expertise of those participating in the trips.
“It’s a lot to take in in two weeks,” says Heather. “Getting to experience such completely different cultures is so valuable. Until you are immersed in a place, there’s no way you can conceive of different cultures—the level of poverty and how happy these people are without all the things we have here in the U.S. They’re like, ‘Wow, okay.’ It just sparks something. It’s such a great reminder. In the U.S. life gets so complicated. You go to a different culture and see how simple and basic their lives are, and they don’t have a choice. It’s a basic reminder. We have choices here that they don’t.”
Booking 17 group excursions in a space of two months is a Herculean task for the small office of five staff members. Heather says that Youthlinc’s international service director basically lives at the office during the summer. Youthlinc relies on dedicated volunteers to help pick up the slack when staff members get overwhelmed. “We’re very fortunate to have volunteers that come in every single week like clockwork to help us,” she says.
Helping people, learning about other cultures, and commitment to compassionate service all contribute to a rich, inspiring work environment for everyone involved. Heather says, “The people we interact with on our teams, and my coworkers are some of the most kindhearted people. It makes work much easier.”