When Burmese refugees Win and Khin La were relocated to Utah, they were directed to Youthlinc, a non-profit humanitarian organization. They enrolled in the organization’s “Real Life: Peer to Peer Mentoring” program to learn the basics of navigating the culture they’d just entered. Native-born peers, who served as volunteers for the program, taught them the basics of living in a foreign culture, such as understanding finances and how and where to shop, and they helped them with English language practice.
According to Youthlinc’s website, “Real Life focuses on supporting refugee and immigrant teens who suffer from a variety of issues as they start a new life in Utah. These youth face language, cultural, economic, and educational barriers. Not many after school programs are designed to meet these challenges. Real Life provides engaging, interactive, educational, and “real life” applicable lessons and activities that will help refugee teens become successful adults and contributing members of society.” Real Life even sponsors outings such as bowling, rock climbing and hiking trips to help the new residents integrate into and feel welcome in their new communities.
After receiving the benefits of this program, the two became volunteers and mentors in the same program. Soon, they felt inspired to volunteer for another of Youthlinc’s programs—an international trip to share their skills with communities abroad that were in need of their expertise.
“We encouraged them to apply,” says Justin Powell, Youthlinc’s executive director. “We have a pretty robust financial aid package, so we gave them a scholarship to get them started. They worked hard to design fundraising projects to raise the money to go to Thailand.”
Ultimately, the two went back to where they had been living before they immigrated to the U.S. and were able to help their former community as humanitarian workers. “It was really powerful to seem them change from students receiving aid from a non-profit to students volunteering with a non-profit,” says Powell. “It’s great to see refugees come full circle. It’s very empowering for them to have the opportunity to help return the favor by helping their former communities.”
This is just one story of many that inspire Powell and the hundreds of students who have volunteered for Youthlinc since it began. 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.
Youthlinc’s Local and International Service
Youthlinc grows every year. Last year, 360 students participated in their programs. Add in student leaders and adult mentors, and about 500 people volunteered for Youthlinc last year. In addition, Youthlinc recently added satellite teams in Utah County, Logan, and half-Salt Lake City and half-Southern Utah team. “It’s inspiring to see Youthlinc having an impact elsewhere in the state,” says Powell.
Youthlinc’s volunteers perform both local and international service. Students from 10th grade to grad school are welcome to participate. Participants in their Service Year program perform 80 hours of local community service over nine months before embarking on the international trips. When students join the program, mentors support them to identify their areas of interest. They then gravitate to the populations that most interest them—the elderly, hospice patients, refugee communities and at-risk youth.
International trips take place in June and July. This summer, Youthlinc sponsored 13 service trips. Current service sites are located in Cambodia, Guatemala, Madagascar, 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 oversee projects and educational programs, and provide direction for the student volunteers. Projects depend on the needs of the village and the talents and expertise of those participating in the trips.
Giving is Receiving
In the practice of generosity, it is said that the recipient and giver both receive benefit. As the Buddha said, “Before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.” Youthlinc volunteers benefit from their service just as much as do the communities they serve. “Every year we see students having epiphanies and their perspectives evolve and widen,” says Powell. “It’s a really joyful thing.”
Youthlinc welcomes student and adult volunteers to act as mentors to students. To volunteer for Youthlinc, visit their website.