Since the initial youth conferences held in 2013, many cohorts of youth have reflected on the idea that “in selfless service to society is the possibility for both personal growth and enhancing capacity to contribute to social progress.” At the outset of the One Year Plan, a growing number of youth, along with friends of all ages, are setting aside time to focus on service to humanity.
Emily Glabush and Hannah Michel are two such youth who are currently in the midst of periods of service. Emily is in the early weeks of serving as part of a neighbourhood team in the urban context of the Mooregate neighbourhood in Waterloo, and Hannah is completing her second year of full-time service in the smaller city of Peterborough.
For those young people and families considering offering a period of service, the question of what it practically looks like often arises, as does how daily realities might influence the possibility for personal growth and capacity to contribute to social progress. Hannah describes how the context of her service impacted her experience:
The summer before I started my service here, I served in the Greenboro neighbourhood in Ottawa for a summer and that was so different. There was a strong team, and we would study every morning, and there was this very real sense of momentum. In that case, there was already some structure. In Peterborough, I had to take a lot more initiative in reaching out to others, so this was a very different challenge. I’ve been the only person serving full time in Peterborough. You know, I still get anxious about home visits and phone calls, and I’ve had to accompany others even though I’m still not comfortable doing it!
That connection to mutual support and accompaniment between friends, whether it’s where you’re living or with others in the province, is so helpful. The isolation that comes with not having a team to study and act with every day has pushed me to look for help. If I don’t ask for help, I can’t serve effectively. Sometimes I feel that asking for help is selfish, but we have to swallow our pride and find support. One of my friends who was pioneering by himself in a different neighbourhood in Ontario was also feeling a sense of isolation and a need for structure and accompaniment, so we started praying together and studying the guidance every day and it really helped us both. I clung to regular gatherings with a group of collaborators in Western Ontario, where we would study and consult and reflect together. My service has also helped me to be gentle with myself as well as to learn about the daily habits that really support me, like obligatory prayer, in addition to the conditions that help me thrive.
In Emily’s case, her first few weeks of service in Mooregate were different than she expected, but she reflects on the way in which this time helped her to appreciate what it looks like to be part of a team at the forefront of growth in her cluster.
I had helped with other campaigns in other neighbourhoods before, but now, in Mooregate, I’ve been part of facilitating a campaign. It’s more hectic being involved with the planning process. I’d never seen the planning process from that side and how many things were involved. But when I first got to Mooregate, we were immediately studying book 7 in the mornings and had our whole days planned out. After our study, we went to the field for five hours where we’d meet youth and have conversations. We’d then come back and reflect together. Then, through the consolidation phase, we had to think about how we’d follow up with those we’d met. It wasn’t something I’d done before I guess, to really see and experience how planning for these multiple phases took place, and how these plans were implemented. I suppose it was this feeling of constantly being a protagonist rather than participating in activities that others plan. Once you’re part of a team, you’re the one advancing relationships with a sense of commitment and continuity; you’re the one who has to call to follow up with that particular friend or parent. There are lists of people we’ve been in touch with now, and so it goes on to the next part of the process. I’d always handed the list to someone else, but this is now my responsibility. That was new for me.
Both Hannah and Emily described that no other experience, be it work or school, seems to offer youth the same opportunity to both act and self-reflect with the purpose of contributing meaningfully to society. In that light, it’s not surprising that the experience of service can profoundly impact and inform a young person’s life path.
Before starting her period of service, Hannah was reaching the point of burnout at the end of her second year of university, and she decided she needed to take a step back. While she didn’t have a clear sense of what her next step should be, she recognized one thing: “I wasn’t putting the Faith at the centre of my life in the way I wanted to. I realized I had to put myself in an environment where my values and goals would be supported.” Through her participation in the Institute for the Studies in Global Prosperity undergraduate seminars, and after consulting with friends, family and Institution members, Hannah realized she didn’t have to move elsewhere to find an environment that would help her to live a coherent life; instead she could remain in Peterborough and offer a period of service there. Ultimately, her period of service led to “better understanding my purpose in life.” As she further describes:
It’s been perfect timing for me, in terms of offering service at this time in my life. If you have any doubt about what path to take in life, which many youth do, I think focusing on service for a period of time is a great way to figure it out. Do something you know is meaningful and important and that will help you grow immensely.
I’ve learned so much through my full-time service that I wasn’t necessarily learning in school. I learned about my own brain and how I function. I was motivated to and had the time to listen to a ton of podcasts and deep dive into areas of my life that could only be revealed once the intense stressors of work and school were gone. This allowed me to create better forms of support for myself and build better habits which have helped me in my ability to serve.
I learned a lot about communication too, having to work in a team and closely with other people in a way that is a lot more informal. You’re spending a lot of time with other people, and everyone communicates differently. These are things that seem obvious, but they hit me more when I was immersed in it. There are certain skills that I was able to strengthen that will help me in school. In addition, I developed a better understanding of my purpose in life.
When we are serving, we learn about ourselves and what helps us thrive. Even the cycles of expansion and consolidation, that’s also present in nature. What I’ve learned in service is broader in some ways than what school offers: how the world works, the nature of certain processes, confirmation and dynamics around sacrifice and detachment. I remember watching my tomato plants growing in the garden. Their growth is so chaotic, in all directions, I keep having to pluck off these little suckers. They are hardwired to make efforts wherever they can. If there’s nothing to support the plants, they fall over, but they still produce fruit. Even in imperfect circumstances, they still carry out their purpose. They helped me to understand that I don’t have to be the perfect animator: if this junior youth group is happening, it will carry out its purpose. A tomato plant on the ground is better than no tomato plant at all! I hope I can carry these learnings with me as I start school again, so they can help me keep my vision focused on my purpose.
These reflections bring to mind Shoghi Effendi’s words that:
“The more we search for ourselves, the less likely we are to find ourselves; and the more we search for God, and to serve our fellow-men, the more profoundly will we become acquainted with ourselves, and the more inwardly assured. This is one of the great spiritual laws of life.”
After two years of serving full-time, Hannah is looking forward to starting school in the fall in an entirely different area: ecological restoration. She describes with enthusiasm the beautiful home she’s had the opportunity to live in with another young Bahá’í woman, where not only did they regularly pray, consult and reflect together, but they planted a garden in their backyard. The practices of the Institute as well as nurturing her backyard garden, over time, helped Hannah find clarity about what she wanted to study:
Something that the Institute helps us understand is that no one is born to be a tutor or an animator, these are capacities anyone can build. In the same way, we aren’t born to have one single career path or another. So, this helped me start thinking like ‘where are my strengths? What are the things I get excited about? What are the parts of service I like? And could that be something I could do professionally?” I realized how happy I am as I’m gardening, and how connected our inner life is with the outer environment.
In Emily and Hannah’s words, a mere sprinkling of the vast insights being gleaned by the many young people arising to serve in Ontario are glimpses of the way, “as they infuse their day-to-day activities with a spirit of generous giving, and offer voluntary acts for the well-being of others, they attract the assistance and confirmations of God.”
 Youth Conference Materials, 2013.
 From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, February 18, 1954
 Youth Conference Materials, 2013.