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If you’re young, have you ever thought of taking a gap year, and just going somewhere to learn, help others and explore?
Well, many young Baha’is do exactly that—commit to a “youth year of service”—and take roughly a year to serve the Baha’is and their friends in numerous community activities.
Youth years of service sometimes happen within the community the youth already live in, or the young person can move to another part of their country or even travel abroad. I did mine when I left Chicago to go live and serve in Auckland, New Zealand from June 2013 until May 2014. Since my birthday is in June, that means I spent almost my entire 25th year in New Zealand.
I left everyone I knew to go to the furthest corner of the world, and I have absolutely no regrets.
Why Take a Gap Year for Volunteering?
You might ask: why would someone leave everyone and everything they know and pause their studies or their careers to serve a community where they had no previous connection? Well, Baha’is see active service to others as a part of worship and prayer, and Baha’is believe in one world:
If we are true Baha’is speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 80-81.
Service to humanity, as the Baha’i teachings point out, can take all kinds of different forms. Baha’i youth can work on the “core activities” Baha’i communities already have in place to serve different age groups, from children to the elderly. They can volunteer time to help the wider community in many other capacities, too. For instance, the global Baha’i community has nine continental Houses of Worship, where people from all backgrounds and Faiths are welcome to reflect, pray and meditate. Volunteers are needed to help with the thousands of visitors. Non-profit organizations usually need help, too, and schools can always use enthusiastic volunteers.
For instance, in Vanuatu I encountered the Rowhani Baha’i school, which concentrates on, “the spiritual, intellectual and social development of children and youth of Vanuatu, so that they may become agents of social change and development, may become spiritually empowered to deal with all the challenges life may send them, and become a distinctive group of people, dedicated to the service of others in their community.”
So what did I do on the other side of the planet? I edited videos. I graduated studying media production and had worked as a social media manager and production assistant for two years at the United States Baha’i National Center. During my time there, I grew as a producer and editor for short documentaries. After my contract was up, with the support of my parents, I applied to serve in New Zealand at their Baha’i National Center, editing documentaries.
There, I went from producing and editing four-minute online videos to doing 30- to 60-minute documentaries that aired all over the South Pacific on television and online. It was a big step! I was mentored by Emmy Award-winning editor Ken Zemke, and I helped broaden their social media outreach. On top of my duties for the media department, I got involved in a Baha’i study class, took part in several projects with teenagers around Auckland, and organized community events including a very successful Halloween party.
But beyond my actual service, I made some great friendships, connected with relatives there, explored a lot of New Zealand, went to Australia and Vanuatu, and strengthened my media skills as an editor. Overall, I learned a lot about myself, about what I can do for others, how I can serve and what it means to work for the unity of humanity in any capacity:
It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One. Ponder ye in your hearts the grace and the blessings of God and render thanks unto Him at eventide and at dawn. Waste not your time in idleness and sloth. Occupy yourselves with that which profiteth yourselves and others. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 26.
It wasn’t all easy—I cried the whole first night when I arrived in New Zealand. I wondered—what was I thinking? I didn’t know anybody! I had never edited any video more than 15 minutes long—what if I fail?! Soon, though, I realized, as much as Ken and the National Baha’i Center took a chance on me to serve in New Zealand, I took a chance on myself—and it was worth everything.
A year of service gives a young person a chance to really invest in themselves, in a community and in reevaluating what to do with your life. I studied the Baha’i teachings, had intellectual as well as silly conversations with people from all over the world, laughed and cried. I learned about me and why the Baha’i writings suggest that everyone find ways to serve humanity. I encourage you to think about how you can serve your communities to help them grow—you’ll find that it will help you grow, too.