Philanthropists, educators and Utah leaders were at the Delta Center Monday for Gov. Spencer Cox’s symposium focusing on service.

Attendees included University of Utah president Taylor Randall, Vice President of Community & Special Events for the Utah Jazz Kari Holt Larson, President and CEO of Civic Enterprises John Bridgeland and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.

The event featured Maj. Gen. Joseph Heck as the keynote speaker. Heck is the deputy surgeon general for mobilization and readiness in the Office of Surgeon General.

During the daylong event called “Why Serve,” Dame Louise Richardson of the Carnegie Corporation of New York announced $3 million in new funding for state and national programs — $1.1 million will be directed toward initiatives in Utah.

Richardson spoke about the importance of highlighting service efforts in today’s age of polarization. She said she hopes the initiatives started in Utah will be a beacon to other states.

“Service and the commitment to give back are defining features of our state culture and we want to keep it that way,” Cox said. “Volunteering has benefits for the giver, the receiver and the entire community, and that’s why we’re launching several initiatives that support volunteering. We’re so grateful for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and others who join us in these efforts.

In an interview at the event, Cox praised Utah’s existing efforts to serve and expressed excitement for the future. Pointing toward efforts like first lady Abby Cox’s work with Special Olympics Unified Sports, he emphasized how unifying service can be.

First lady Abby Cox makes as fidget toy as part of a Generus mental health and emotional fluency kit for a service project during a Why We Serve symposium at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We’ve seen it grow from about 30 schools to now over 200 schools. That’s where kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities play sports together. And it’s a life-changing moment for both of them,” he said. “We get to watch basketball, track, soccer and just see the tears of joy in the faces of participants and the parents whose kids they never thought they would get to see on a basketball court with a crowd cheering for them.”

There are a number of resources Utahns can turn to if they’d like to get out and serve, including JustServe and AmeriCorps. Cox also forecasted an upcoming proposal that’ll be part of this next legislation session: a year of service.

This would give high school graduates a stipend right after they graduate so they can spend a year serving others.

A recent survey from Noble Predictive Insights asked if respondents supported young Utahns receiving a living stipend or educational scholarship for participating in an optional year of service. Sixty-five percent of likely voters expressed support and 67% overall said they supported this idea.

Those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 34 were the most likely group to support, at 80%.

Among service’s myriad benefits, Cox highlighted one in particular: It helps to depolarize people. “It really is an antidote to most of the biggest problems we’re facing as a country,” he said. As governor, Cox has honed in on promoting civil discourse and moving toward unity. For him, service is another way to do that.

Gov. Cox says Utah’s ability to create economic mobility is important to him
Gov. Spencer Cox checks in on people making Generus mental health and emotional fluency kits as part of a service project during a Why We Serve symposium at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Utah leads the nation in social capital, upward mobility, social mobility, all of these metrics that are about community, about helping each other, about lifting people out of poverty — people who are struggling,” Cox said. “And service is a way to do that.”

Throughout the event, there was a focus on how service can transform communities for the better. Heck, the keynote speaker, expressed the importance of “creating a culture — a shared ethos — where every American is inspired and eager to serve.”

As key to developing a culture of service, Heck expressed the need for a comprehensive civic education program — one that isn’t isolated to the classroom. “Beginning in elementary school and continuing through middle and high school, students should have the chance to participate in a stepwise progression of service opportunities.”

Survey data from Noble Predictive Insights also found that respondents support the idea of requiring students to participate in community service.

Among likely voters, 61% stated they would support a community service graduation requirement for high school seniors while only 23% said they would not support it.

In addition to supporting statewide initiatives to promote service in the state, Cox said that serving others is something that’s important to him.

“Just a few weeks ago, we were at St. Vincent DePaul’s serving dinner to our homeless friends — something we try to do multiple times a year — and it was so impactful,” Cox said. “To just listen to their stories and to have a great experience together.”

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Cox added that “the good news about being in Utah is that almost everybody has stories about service opportunities that are emotional where they felt something.”

Across all different values sets, whether those be religious or philosophical, Cox said that almost everybody in the world prioritizes service. Cox explained that his faith motivates him to serve.

“I know that’s certainly true for me,” he said. “I grew up as somebody who’s deeply engaged in my faith. I served a two-year mission in Mexico for my church. And those values came from following the example of Jesus Christ, who literally gave his life in service to his fellow man. His teachings and his philosophies are all about giving back, doing unto the least of these who may be struggling, and blessing the widow, the childless, the imprisoned.”

“All of those teachings have certainly inspired me.”

Tess Mason-Elder makes a guided prompt journal while preparing Generus mental health and emotional fluency kits for a service project during a Why We Serve symposium at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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