Mena and Jonaya are both 17 and have been serving in the Chester Le pocket in the Upper Don Mills neighbourhood of Toronto for the past six years. They shared the following reflections on their service this summer, the conversations it has led to in their respective families, the way their understanding of their neighbourhood has deepened, and how their service has informed their approach to higher education.
Mena: My brother was in the junior youth program for a few years, so that’s how I knew about the program. I joined a week after I turned 11.
Jonaya: And I only joined because you knocked on my door!
Mena: True! When I was 15, we were introduced to the books of the Ruhi Institute, and I really familiarized myself with the Baha’í writings and I really enjoyed participating in devotionals and doing the children’s classes. Jonaya and I see a big difference in the neighbourhood from when we started out. In the beginning, I mean, there’s been a lot of gang violence the past few years. Teaching the children these concepts of love and kindness and how to be loving to our neighbours, we actually see a big difference a year later, they really want to help each other.
Mena (left) and Jonaya (right) in the first photo, with Matt and Carmen in Montreal and serving in Chester Le
Jonaya: Yeah, starting the children’s class with Mena was a way I could actually contribute to my own community. And this summer, we’ve both been serving full time to help other teens who want to start to do the same thing, study and start classes with children. We’ve met 40 new youth this summer, we’ve outreached so far and wide. We spent two weeks just focused on youth. Some of them come just for the volunteer hours they get for school, but then over time, through serving, they change and find their purpose. When they start serving and building relationships with the kids, that’s what really changes things. For example, we might end our activities at 7pm but then they’ll stay and play with the kids after because they want to, and you see that shift. From all the youth we talked to, about 25 have continued to serve with us.
Mena: We started teaching children’s classes even before we started studying book 1. It was a big work in progress. Since we were a very small neighbourhood, we only had each other to rely on. But now in the summer of service, we’re connected to so many new youth. Over the last few years, I’ve really understood more about the role of youth in the neighbourhood. Really understanding how important that is motivates me. Sometimes the children and junior youth give us a hard time (laughter) so remembering our purpose really helps me in times of difficulties.
Jonaya: The idea to serve full time this summer started when I was tutoring at a Book 3 campaign over March break when our older friends, Neda and Matt, started sharing how helpful it would be for us to help over the summer and tutor other people who want to do children’s classes. I thought, “this is great, I can help others to do what we’re doing, but in their own community.” But the decision wasn’t like ‘let’s do it right away’, because back home with my family, I’m the oldest and my parents really depend on me to help with my younger siblings. It’s difficult for my Mom and Dad to say yes to me being away from 12 pm to 7 pm. I really wanted to do the period of service, to serve of course, but also because we were trapped inside all year and I wanted that one-on-one human interaction. When Matt talked to my family and described how much I’m helping the community, my Mom was really touched. She understood how long I’ve been with the program and how it impacts the community.
Mena: Yeah, Covid has been a hard time for me, mentally and spiritually. My mom knows I’ve been part of the program for more than seven years now and that I’m always wanting to be a part of it. I explained to her that it’s important for us to teach the children and junior youth at a young age so they can be the leaders later on. Throughout the last few summers, I’ve also been helping my Mom with work. During Covid it’s been stressful. She doesn’t need help everyday, but she knew that before school started, I wanted to do this and that it was really important, so she supported my decision.
Jonaya: Serving has had a big impact for both of us too, in picking what we’ll do in postsecondary. I always wanted to be a doctor. Ever since grade 9 I wanted to be an OB-GYN. But through my service and study, I really saw my own passion around working with kids. I realized I actually want to become a social worker and I’ll be studying social work at George Brown College starting this September.
Mena: For me, I wanted to be a lawyer for a long time, then I wanted to be a pediatrician, but I don’t want to go to school for 13 years! Through my connection with our friend, pretty much our older sister, Carmen, she guided me to think through my interests and talents. I’m really into sports and she shared about her sister working as a physiotherapist, which is such a cool job. So, now I really want to work as a physiotherapist in a children’s hospital one day.
Jonaya: When it comes to the program helping us find what we want to study later in life in college and university, I remember that book, Breezes of Confirmation and how Musonda tries to think about her own talents.
Mena: Honestly, serving is not as easy as I thought it would be. You’re working with so many different types of people and learning to interact with them. Working with junior youth and children, I learn so much from them. When they refer to the quotation I taught them two weeks ago, I’m like “wow! We’re having an impact on them!” It’s interesting, this is a community where we thought there were like 50 people, but we’re now familiar with about 300!
Jonaya: Yeah, two weeks ago, we had this small little devotional in someone’s backyard, and it was pouring rain and we were just standing there, talking about prayer and what it meant to us.
Mena: I love how the kids run up to us in the community. They say, “Hi Ms. Mena!” and the parents will call out and invite us in: “it’s so hot, do you want some water?”
Mena and Jonaya’s energy and joyfulness around their service bring to mind the Universal House of Justice’s description of the period of youth:
“This bright period of youth you share is experienced by all—but it is brief, and buffeted by numerous social forces. How important it is, then, to strive to be among those who, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘plucked the fruit of life’.”
 Universal House of Justice, July 1, 2013