Mormon Helping Hands

I often see pictures of service projects, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with masses of LDS volunteers wearing those yellow shirts that say “Mormon Helping Hands.” I’ve long had sort of a vague sense of envy when I see those pictures. It seems as though those folks are doing important work, and yet having a genuinely good time while they do it.

My chance was finally coming. Our stake had designated July 24th as our annual day of service. We had the yellow shirts and vests at the ready, and each unit grouped by building had planned a service project for the day.

Our building’s project involved cleaning up a local forest preserve. Unfortunately, there were massive thunderstorms overnight into the morning, and the project had to be cancelled. Rats!

But the Arlington Heights units in our stake managed to pull their project off. (When I first moved to Chicago I attended church at that building.) Their project involved lending a hand at the Crabtree Nature Center in the northwest corner of Cook County. As part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Crabtree Nature Center has slowly been returning to its natural state, through both the natural process and Forest Preserve management.

Mormon Helping Hands volunteers were available to help management with trail improvement and clearing of growth invasive to the natural prairie. More than 60 members of the Arlington Heights First and Second wards came out to move mulch over slick, muddy trails and to clear plants that potentially could overcome the natural prairie. Under the direction of the Forest Preserve Management, within a 3-hour timeframe, a large pile of mulch was spread over an entire trail and many stems of the invasive white sweet clover were removed from the natural prairie. A morning that began with storms ended with a much improved prairie and trail.

What have your experiences been with service projects under the “Mormon Helping Hands” rubric?


  1. Kevin,

    Are you in this picture? I want a picture of you in the yellow vest.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    No, I didn’t get my yellow vest on due to the huge thunderstorms that preempted our project.

  3. Sorry, I read it closer after posting my question. I just got excited.

  4. Miami, Florida, August 1992. Shortly following the departure of Hurricane Andrew, hordes of yellow-shirted Helping Hands volunteers descended onto the Homestead, Florida stake center. My husband worked for a local power company and had scarcely been home in the days following the storm. Our three small children (age 7, 5 and 2) had managed minor repairs and clean-up, but our yard remained covered with downed trees. Our electricity was not yet restored (and would be out for a total of 5 weeks.) A crew of Helping Hands volunteers came to our home with chain saws and work gloves; the debris was removed in a matter of hours. At a stressful time, these volunteers made all the difference to our family.

  5. #4 edited to add
    the children and I had managed minor repairs – 18 years later, those kids still aren’t safe with anything more than a rake!

  6. Our stake did a lot of landscaping work at local parks and a school. My family helped the school–it has a farm. We mended fences, laid mulch in their garden, cleaned the chicken coop, stuff like that. It was really fun and hard enough work that we felt a sense of accomplishment when we were done–and the people who run the farm were very appreciative for the help.

  7. Eric S. says:

    I was invited by a friend to run a 10k in Menafee, CA about two months ago. We pull up to the parking area, and I started to see the yellow bibs on parking attendants and people manning the booths in the stagging area. I noticed a stake center was across the street.

    The race organizer was an non-profit dedicated to helping heart disease is some way–completely unrelated to the Church. While I ran, I noticed that all of the course attendants were wearing yellow bibs too. Many of them were youth and some were children.

    At the end of the race, as we walked back all sweaty and tired to the car, there was a huge tent with many yellow bibs moving around inside. They at least looked busy. They were sorting and folding volunteer shirts and participant shirts. So I had to ask. I walked up to a few of the women in the tent and asked if there was a relief society meeting going on. The whole booth turned around, laughed, and I couldn’t brake away for 20 minutes. Sitting on the booth counter were unopened boxes and cartons full of Starbucks coffee. They said that a local Starbucks was happy to contribute it to the event for heart disease. The organizers were then happy to give it to the LDS RS booth. Double irony.

    It was a great event, and a pleasant surprise to see the yellow bibs out in full smiling force on a Saturday morning.

  8. Molly Bennion says:

    Our ward provides the refreshments (must be homemade and top quality) and staff for a “Memorial Tea” for the UW Children’s Hospital. (The title is the hospital’s and does irritate some of our local leadership.) Under the direction of the hospital Chaplain, the service and party honor the children who have died during the past year and give the families a chance to see each other, doctors, nurses and Ronald McDonald house staff again. It is immensely healing.

    For many years, we volunteered after church at the nearby Catholic church soup kitchen. Wish it were still going on. We made friends with our neighbors and served many in need.

    In September we will take part in a regional service project, with numerous local projects yet to be determined. Are other regions planning similar events?

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    Ironically, Mormons are not the only ones who wear yellow shirts when helping out:

  10. i’m a little bitter about this. i lived in s. florida at the time of hurricane andrew and watched my dad and brothers go help out with the relief efforts (while wearing the yellow shirts). but for reasons unknown to me, yw were not allowed to be part of that relief effort. still galls me to this day.

  11. Scientology! Scientology!

    (cue 200 comment mega-thread)

  12. I have (failed to?) learned one lesson after two years of MHH projects: show up early if you want to contribute.

    Both of the last two years, my wife and I and our kids have arrived 10-20 minutes after the start of our service project (cleaning up a wetland preserve near our home), only to discover that virtually all of the work had been done already because of the enormous turnout of volunteers. We still donned yellow vests and carried bags around, but there wasn’t much left to do.

    We have sworn in our wrath to arrive earlier next year.

    We have also sworn in our wrath to bring an extra large bag of garbage in our trunk so we manufacture work in case we need it.

  13. Our small unit has 50-60 attenders per week. The big decision every year is whether or not to send a letter to the press about our activity and to try to get a newspaper article out of the 25-30 people that do something. Some feel we should do service without advertising it, some think it is the best PR we could ever have. Nobody wants to wear the yellow bibs. We don’t have enough confidence that the press coverage would be postiive, so we have refrained from inviting the press so far. Two of the last three years we put on a long program in rest home followed by dessert served by primary kids. Seeing our children perform brought them lots of delight.

  14. Kristine says:

    Amanda, that’s really depressing.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    As a result of living where I do, we get a chance almost every year to do this. It is a great thing, and I have seen it rejuvenate wards and quorums. It helps us to remember why we are latter-day saints. It is wonderful to serve in this way.

    I also think it is important to our missionary effort. As we are doing this work it is not uncommon for people to ask us what church we represent. They want to associate themselves with people who are able to do good works on this scale. When you are doing hurricane relief it takes the entire weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes after we have helped someone they ask where our church is. I always invite them to come with us and help the next day, and more than once they have done just that. I cannot imagine a better introduction to the church than participating in this kind of gospel in action.

    Amanda, your experience is unfortunate, but I think that attitude is changing. While most of the people are still male, it is not uncommon now for women and YW to help, too.

  16. Matt W. says:

    When I first moved to San Antonio, there was a flood in a neighboring county and we went and helped. It was pretty awesome.

  17. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, I visited some friends in SE Alabama one weekend and found out it was their weekend to go to the Mississippi gulf area and continue the clean-up effort. My small group cleared and cleaned a yard and house for an elderly couple who had been living in a camper on their lot since the hurricane hit.

    It was an amazing experience, especially being so long after the original damage and so long after nearly all other large-scale organized relief efforts had ceased to move on to other areas. I’ll never forget the reaction of the peopel we helped. Never.

  18. I should add that teams of people from different units all across the Southeast took part in that relief effort every weekend after the initial wave of daily help ended for at least three years.

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    re 9 – 11
    Didn’t mean to thread-jack. I’ve seen the yellow-shirted Volunteer Ministers cleaning up parks here and couldn’t help but notice the similarity, that’s all.

  20. I’ve helped twice in floods. First in Georgia, and then in Terre Haute, Indiana. Nasty work, but it makes a big difference.

  21. Three years ago we had some pretty devastating floods in the Centralia/Chehalis area of Washington. My youngest son and I participated one Saturday, helping to shovel mud out of a couple of farm homes. We had more people available to work than sites they could be sent to that day. The cleanup went on for another two weeks, but it was fun both to participate (not to mention hard work), but also fun to see the hundreds of yellow shirts all over the valley as we drove from site to site. We also helped by bringing lunches for the families we were helping, and a couple of cases of bottled water, as the water supply for much of the area was contaminated by the floods.

  22. Sidebottom says:

    A member of our ward taught/baptized one of MHH’s “founders” while serving a mission in South America (Argentina?). Over the next couple of years the initiative spread throughout S. America and eventually to the worldwide church.

    Not sure if we can hold him responsible for the yellow shirts.

  23. We just did a “Helping Hands” a couple months ago. Repaired some running/hiking trails. We did four times as much as the county guy expected — he said he couldn’t believe the turnout.

    After the fires in eastern San Diego county, the stakes in our area sent hoards of people out there to help the people clean up, and opportunities to help were open to just about everybody. I went up three Saturdays (once with a van load of Beehives) and there were assignments enough to keep everybody busy pretty much all day. I was really impressed at the tables of equipment and water the church had ready to go. Made me proud. Groups were formed and given specific addresses to report to, and we pretty much flooded the place with yellow shirts. Obviously, we weren’t as efficient as heavier equipment, but we were there and we got stuff done. Probably the most good we did was simply showing up — people were simply overwhelmed, and some of them just started to cry when they saw us arrive.

    The most poignant experience for me was standing with a family looking over the ruins of their house, absolutely nothing salvageable. They’d been out of town when the evacuation order hit and hadn’t been able to save anything. Their 2-story home had been reduced to a 2-ft pile of rubble (even cinderblocks and bricks collapsed into powder), their cars had become metal skeletons, and their avocado orchard had been obliterated. I figured out the bunches of shiny wire I found lying on the ground not far from the house were all that was left of a radial tire.

    The man said it was a shame it took something like this to realize what was really important in life. He said he realized he put too much time into things that could just go up in smoke. He said he really appreciated us coming out to help — that it meant a lot. “You know,” he said, “if it’d been you, we would’ve been out to help you too,” and it was awesome, ’cause I knew it was true. But I had the church providing the infrastructure so that little people like me to actually do something.

  24. Similar to Amanda, I’ve sometimes been bitter about the fact that it is generally the men who are asked/allowed to participate in some of the large-scale volunteer efforts our church organizes. After Hurricane Katrina our stake had a weekend that we sent volunteers down to Mississippi, but only the men were allowed to go. I would have loved it if my husband could have stayed home with our son while I went to participate in the clean-up effort.

    Other than one youth conference where we spent all weekend doing various service projects in groups around the community (it was awesome, but we didn’t wear yellow vests), I’ve had many more opportunities for this kind of volunteer work in other organizations than in the church. I’m glad to see that might be changing, as many of the stories recounted involve whole families, which is wonderful.

  25. Matt. 6: 1-4
    1 TAKE heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
    2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
    3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
    4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

  26. DannyZ,
    Sorry to offend! If you don’t like stories about recent service projects, then you’re probably safer in the Newsroom at where you’ll be sure to NEVER hear a peep about Mormons volunteering in the community.

  27. Cynthia L. says:

    Awesome. It’s comments like DannyZ’s that really make Mormon blogging worthwhile. I’m being completely serious. What fun would it be without comments like that?

  28. Scott, I’m not offended in the least. You can sound your trumpet before men, and have your newspaper articles. I’ll do my service in secret, and reap my rewards later on…..

  29. MikeInWeHo says:

    I’m with you, Cynthia.

  30. Cheers, DannyZ. Enjoy your secret service!

  31. Cynthia L. says:

    Danny, is going around boasting about all the secret service you do and bragging about the rewards you will reap really in harmony with Matt. 6: 1-4?

    Secrecy FAIL.

  32. Antonio Parr says:

    27,29-31: The glee that you folks appear to find in collective ridicule is bewildering. The fact that the sarcasm acts as a kind of bonding experience makes it even more so.

    Why not revise your mission statement to include a warning that if visitors such as DannyZ writes something you don’t like, you will make sure that he rues the day that he ever dropped by?

    Intellect and kindess/civility are not mutually exclusive.

  33. I wonder if trolling is considered service . . . there shall be reaping of a large reward for you indeed.

  34. Antonio, you brought up that concern before. I think John C. answered you quite well in comments 153 and 158.

    Besides, sarcasm is inherent in any culture that so effectively shuns alcohol, drugs, and rampant uncommitted sex. Its a divine characteristic of Mormonism. Without it, we’d be downright boring.

  35. Antonio Parr says:

    Kindness seems to be one of those attributes that should be at the top of our list, even more so than shunning alcohol, drugs and rampant uncommitted sex. Maybe a glass of fine wine before anyone types would sacrifice one commandment for the sake of a higher law . . .

  36. So my boxed wine won’t work? . . . dangit.

  37. I had no idea that quoting a scripture (and that is all I did in my first post) would create such an uproar! If that scripture bothered you, then maybe it applied to you. I have always been bothered by the fact that the church can’t do a service project without calling the newspaper first. What is more important, the service, or the so called publicity? If it is the service, then stop calling the newspaper, stop wearing the Helping Hands vests, and just do the work.

    The only reason I quoted the scripture was to have a legitimate discussion on what the true reason is that we do these big stake service projects in the church. It seems you don’t want to have that discussion, because maybe you won’t like the answer?

  38. Antonio Parr says:

    B.Russ —

    I’m afraid that the boxed wine won’t work. You may have to opt instead for the drugs or rampant uncommitted sex.

  39. Danny, had you started with a semi-coherent thought like the one you just posted, you probably wouldn’t have drawn as much ire. The problem is that no one likes to have scripture quoted AT them. And really, lets be honest, you weren’t just quoting scripture, you were quoting scripture AT the author of the post. Your thoughts are legitimate, although I don’t agree with them, and you could probably have a good discussion about them. Best of luck to you, and try not to use the scriptures which we all cherish as a weapon. Thanks.

  40. Antonio,
    Well, if I can’t afford fine wine, I’m sure I can’t afford drugs (at least good ones). I guess that limits me, I hope my wife doesn’t mind.

  41. DannyZ,
    You’re a troll, and you’re gone.

  42. Antonio,
    Save me the lectures about being mean. I’ve heard them before, and I’m not in the mood.

  43. Latter-day Guy says:

    You may have to opt instead for the drugs or rampant uncommitted sex.

    Why “or”?

  44. Eric S. says:

    DannyZ – I’m gonna disagree that the Church has a practice calls the newspaper before projects. That’s a generalization, and I just don’t buy into that. If you can give specific examples, then it’s more realistic to think about. The city I live in is so freakin’ benign and boring that the local newspaper and its crack journalists will run the results of Bingo night, dry cement footings for new curbs, or the goings on at the dog park as cover stories. They are always willing to scoop a story about a huge Church group planting city plants on hillsides as it probably doubles readership.

    As for the vests, the uber-managed city that I live in requires some sort of identification for groups that work on projects if the head count exceeds 2 people or something silly like that. This is for insurance reasons, we’re told. I imagine it is also so that city management can know who is who. That’s what all uniforms are for in any capacity. I can also think of many reasons why any organization (as opposed to an individual) would want to publicly post upcoming and past projects on its web site: how about to be organized. Also, if you post acts of aid, alms, and service on an organizational web site whose viewership by and large consists of the organizations members are you really shouting from the rooftops for the rest of world to hear?

    The verses you relate above (25) seem to regard individual alms. Sure, we could say, “Well, there is no indication or qualification in these verses that suggest these standards only apply to individuals. So they also should apply to large organizations, right?” Um, no, not necessarily. For instance, would it be logistically reasonable to expect a largely-populated Church to perform visible acts across a city in secret? Or how about Katrina help, that wasn’t a very public-interest-worthy even was it? Or maybe we could could put up a big tent around the city park or area while we work. I guess stakes could also perform acts of service at 2 a.m. too. Is it realistic to expect that a large group can keep its projects secret as you suggest, especially in cities where the citizens take almost a Nazi-like approach of all that is happening within the city boundaries? C’mon. We’re talking about large groups of people ‘doing stuff’ in the city. How do you propose that we keep it secret?

    If we can’t keep it secret, then I guess the Church should not do these things at all. Is that the desired result?

  45. There are two advantages, institutionally, to volunteers wearing the shirts. First, we can be recognized as part of the group (as mentioned above). This is valuable in gaining access to places that might otherwise be restricted.

    Second, being known as a humanitarian organization also helps us to gain access when humanitarian needs arise in the future. (“Sure, we’ll let in the Mormons. They always do such a great job helping.”)

    Related to these goals, the church makes a concerted effort (sometimes undone by well meaning local folks) to divorce our humanitarian work from our missionary work. We want to help because we see it as a divine commission. We don’t want people to believe that our humanitarian work is merely a pretext to get our missionaries in the door. If people suspect our motives, they won’t allow us to help as much in the future.

    So, while it may sound like “tooting our own horn” to wear the t-shirts, it actually has important humanitarian goals.

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