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Kids reaching out to help others

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This summer, soon-to-be Skyline High junior Krysta Anderson had what she called "like the coolest experience I've ever been on in my whole life."

While others her age were on family trips to the beach, working summer jobs or just hanging out in front of the TV, Anderson was painting houses and building porches in the heat of Tuba City, Ariz., about an hour east of the Grand Canyon, in the heart of the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Anderson was one of eight high school students from the youth ministry program at Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy to travel to Tuba City July 3-7. Along with four group leaders, the students joined 356 other teens, plus their leaders, from all over the country for a mission trip to help the Navajo Indians living there.

Youth ministries and other programs for youths thrive at churches and synagogues throughout Utah. Many are service-oriented, while others have a more spiritual focus. Most are a combination of both, with a lot of fun thrown into the mix.

Seventh- through 12th-grade students from the youth group at Park City's Jewish Center/Temple Har Shalom know how to mix work with pleasure. On July 16, they participated in their "tikkun olam" service project, which is Hebrew for "saving the world," temple administrator Debra Winkler said. Then they hit the Alpine Slide.

"First they do the working part, then they do the fun part," Winkler said.

Jeff Wolfe, who along with his wife, Jeannie, advises the temple's youth group, said the teens spent six months collecting travel-size soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and toothpaste from local businesses and congregation members. They put together between 60 and 70 packets, which they donated to the Peace House women's shelter in Park City.

"The goal of the youth group is to provide a social environment for Jewish teenagers while keeping a religious base," Jeff Wolfe said.

In fact, that is the goal of many religious youth groups throughout the state — to provide a place for youths with the same religious background to build a circle of friends while buffing up their spirituality.

Community of Grace Presbyterian students finished their days of work in Tuba City with devotionals in the evenings. "I think it was a real good spiritual experience for the kids," said Kristen Gorang, one of the leaders who accompanied the youths to the reservation.

And the youths agreed. They said that in addition to religious devotionals, the service they gave and the friendships they made helped them grow closer to God.

Will Lindsay, who is preparing for his junior year at Jordan High, said, "It was really great. I really enjoyed how everyone was there to help and serve God. I do plan to go on another one."

Presbyterian students who gathered to do mission work in Tuba City divided into small groups to do different work on the reservation. Lindsay said his group painted a house and patched holes in drywall. The group Gorang worked with fixed stairs and painted a house. Other groups built wheelchair ramps, repaired roofs or constructed porches. Almost all did some kind of painting, Gorang said.

And in addition to the spiritual growth they gained, many received something in return for their service. Gorang said her group worked for a family with five kids, ranging in age from 3 to 20. The family gave the students and leaders gifts of beaded keychains, took them on horseback rides and made them lunch.

"The family we worked for was great," Gorang said.

Youths from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City also traveled to the Navajo reservation this summer. Youth director Debbi Buese said young Episcopalians from the congregation worked on the grounds at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church outside Bluff, in southern Utah, July 25-29.

While some youth ministries do service work alone, others, like Community of Grace, meet with youths from across the nation.

Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City has the state's largest Jewish youth group, youth director Rafi Schwartz said. Throughout July, Kol Ami youths, who are part of the national United Synagogue Youth group, hosted fellow USY members from the East Coast. Schwartz said the travelers learned about LDS culture, attended religious lectures and toured the city.

While many youth ministries are devoted to high school-aged youths, others work with younger kids. Kol Ami has three groups, divided by age, with activities for children as young as third grade. Community of Grace has a vacation Bible school for younger kids.

Regardless of the activity, however, and regardless of the age, most members of religious youth groups said their experiences serving, learning and growing with their groups are experiences that have changed their lives.

"I thought it was so completely fun," Aimee Butterworth, a Brighton High student and member of Community of Grace, said of her trip to Tuba City. "It was one of the greatest weeks of my life. I think it had a lot to do with the people. We definitely want to do it again next year."

E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com