Some people feel that to serve it must be on a grand scale. And in all honesty many lives were touched at Houston’s most recent Klein Stake Youth Conference, and not just for the residents and patrons of Acres Home Community – a large community center located in a challenged neighborhood north of Houston. Klein youth spent hours stripping paint, hanging doors, mowing, edging, weeding, chopping trees, painting, as well as hauling, collecting, and dumping trash. Among other things they fixed up homes, a cemetery, and a private church. It was group service on a very grand scale.
But for Michael and Tracey Walker, none of this meant more to them than the impact this conference had on their daughter, Tashina.
Tashina is a 15-year-old from the Kleinwood Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She and her family have faced struggles and misunderstandings for most of this girl’s life.
You see, Tashina has Down Syndrome.
“Some people say she is Down Syndrome,” her mother said. “But that’s not who she is, it’s what she has. She’s a young woman.”
While we love to serve by fixing up broken fences and sand off peeling paint, people do not want to feel like they need to be “fixed”. We are all broken and need the atonement to mend us, but with our fellow journeyman in this life we just want to be accepted for who we are, warts and all. We don’t want to be a service project or feel that in order to be accepted or loved something has to be repaired.
So the chance to participate and be part of a youth group meant more to Tashina than the painting and weeding and inspiring talks. For this young woman, it was the acceptance she felt in a group outside of her biological family. It was several days – and all of those moments tied together – of being loved and accepted for just who she is.
And that is what Tashina’s conference family did for her. They let her know she was loved and accepted for who she is now – no strings attached – as their “sister” and “daughter.”
But even more impactful was what Tashina did for them.
Linus Allen, a 15-year-old and one of her “conference brothers” was open about his first impressions.
“On the first day, I looked at Tashina as a person with Down Syndrome. When you identify someone with a certain identity, you instinctively look for stereotypes.”
Linus expected her to be unable to do certain things. But the more he got to know her, the more he realized how capable she was and how she loved to serve.
“Over time, I stopped seeing her as a label, but rather as a complex and complete human being.”
Others remark how friendly she is; that she makes everyone feel like they are long time friends.
“She bound us together with friendship,” Linus said, “Something that would not have happened if she wasn’t there.”
Collin Sanford, a 17-year-old, was another conference “brother.” He had never noticed Tashina until she spoke up during a devotional.
His first thought: she will touch the hearts of many.
“Tashina and I talked a lot about music. She loves music! I learned that the spirit appeals to every heart.”
Tashina seemed to have a special effect on her “Ma” and “Pa” of the family group.
“We were really touched having Tashina in our family,” Don Greenwood, her “pa” from Magnolia, commented.
“She has a magnetic personality; a very special and contagious spirit that draws everyone in. Her spirit and her smile are infectious. She is such a joy to be around and has an amazing sense of humor.
“She was always smiling and expressing her love for us all. The last night we had a testimony meeting and Tashina bore a pure and simple testimony that made us all feel the spirit and brought tears to our eyes, even to the boys.”
The last night of youth conference Marie “Ma” Greenwood and the girls in their “family” had an impromptu pajama party in her room. The girls sat on the bed and Tashina was making everyone laugh and have a good time.
“We realized that we were all alike and we could just be girls, no one was different,” Marie Greenwood said. “[Tashina] showed me that life is a lot simpler than we make it out to be. She helped [all of] us look at the small and simple things and find joy in the simple things in life.”
Service like Tashina’s is on the grandest scale of all.
Photo credit – Tom Kunz