Well-groomed young folks sporting smiles and patriotic red, white and blue vests are becoming familiar sights in cities throughout Chile. Sometimes they're armed with paint brushes or hammers. Others work with rakes and hoes. And images of their faces are often captured in the local newspaper.
Individually, they are LDS institute students — young Chilean men and women much like their counterparts in other countries. Many have served full-time missions. A few are likely preparing to marry. All are hoping for happy futures.
Together they have become "Manos Que Ayudan" (Helping Hands), a service-based group of Chilean Church members. Similar organizations are operating in fellow South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, with each answering a call to serve and improve their respective communities.
Each "Manos Que Ayudan" group in Chile consists of members from five LDS Institute organizations working under the direction of an Area Authority Seventy.
"One of our recent projects involved 250 young adults," said Elder M. Gonzalo Sepulveda, an Area Authority Seventy living in Santiago. "We built two plazas using materials and machinery provided by the city."
All the painting, digging and building were performed by young folks wearing "Manos Que Ayudan" vests emblazoned with Chile's national colors. Their efforts were covered in the newspaper and made new friends for the Church.
"They not only looked alike in dress, but the way they were groomed set them apart," Elder Sepulveda said.
Before beginning a service project, Church leaders such as Elder Sepulveda sit down with mayors and other civic officials to determine a city's needs. Then a date is decided. The young men and women arrive early and ready to work.
"One mayor wondered how we could get so many young people to show up rested and enthused so early on a Saturday morning … when most of the area's other young people were just getting home from [partying] the night before," Elder Sepulveda said.
The group's goals stretch beyond adding touch-up and paint to the community. They hope to become a "constantly burning flame" in their respective communities, Elder Sepulveda said.
"Manos Que Ayudan" service groups are picking up momentum throughout the country. Perhaps some friendly competition will arise between the groups, but they're eager to help each other out. Recently when one group in southern Chile was unable to acquire "Manos Que Ayudan" vests before a project, a group from the north shipped them their own vests, Elder Sepulveda said.
The service group is now preparing for a major project in October in the history-laden city of Valparaiso.
"We'll be working on whatever needs to be done," Elder Sepulveda said.
Young people involved in "Manos Que Ayudan" are both beneficiaries and benefactors of the program, he added. "Our youth are having spiritual experiences of service."