Youthlinc: Creating Lifetime Humanitarians

By Shaelyn Barber

Safari trips are awe-inspiring. Animals abound and amazement takes hold. They are a life-changing experience.

While a safari usually has an impact for the few people who have been on such an adventure, one particular trip turned out to be a life changing experience for thousands of people.

When Judy Zone and her daughter Sara went on a safari in Kenya, they saw far more than just animals. Traveling with a Kenyan-owned safari company, they came into contact with not only the animals they had come so far to see but also the people along the way.

When Judy and her daughter saw the poverty in Kenya, they were shocked. They wanted to do something to help the situation. So, in 1999, Youthlinc was born.

Youthlinc is an organization dedicated to creating lifetime humanitarians. They work primarily with high school aged students. After completing an application and being accepted into the program, each student is required to perform 80 hours of community service before embarking on a two-week journey to one of seven international sites: Peru, Kenya, Cambodia, Thailand, Guatemala, Madagascar, or Nepal. This year, there will be 12 teams total. Students plan out projects for their trip in coordination with an in-country contact. Once overseas, projects include community gardening, English lessons, vocational instruction, and business classes.

Recently, Judy Zone began a new stage of life and retired from her position as executive director of the organization. She was formally replaced on May 21st of 2016 by a man named Justin Powell. Powell has been with Youthlinc since 2008, when he went on a trip to Thailand with the organization. He was drawn into the organization by his wife, who has been a participant in Youthlinc from its first trip. Since then, he and his wife have become progressively more involved. He says, “…we became, like, the people that had been on the most trips out of anyone, including Judy…” He went on his tenth international trip this summer.

“Frankly the reason I kept coming back for more and more Youthlinc was not because of the international experiences or that I got to see exotic places,” Powell says. “Really, what the joy was for me was working with the students and seeing the changes that come about.”

Youthlinc has experienced a lot of changes since its origin  and Powell has been a key figure in many of these. In the beginning of Youthlinc, he explains, there was a lack of structure and how many of the projects were not determined until after the teams had reached their in-country location. “Now there’s actually structures and committees,” Powell said.

One of the biggest changes he oversaw was the development of a key aspect of Youthlinc trips: cultural conversations. Cultural Conversations happen when a group of team members goes to visit a local family in their home in order to learn about each other’s lives and embrace both the differences and similarities. These came about when team members began to have conversations while working with locals. They talked and got to know more about each other, asking questions and exchanging information. Powell explains that “those were the most powerful experiences our team had” After this realization Youthlinc worked to implement the structured cultural conversations.

Moving forward, Powell says he has a lot of ideas to continue the ongoing improvement of Youthlinc as an organization. “I’m always looking for ways to improve everything we do,” he says.

One of his biggest incoming projects is the Global Community Leadership Program, which is focused on involving more college students in Youthlinc. “We’re maybe like, 65 to 35 percent high school versus college, maybe 70-30, but that’s not enough,” he says. “That’s not a lot of college students, there’s obviously something we’re missing out on with college students.” With the Global Community Leadership Program, college students would be able to earn college credit along with their international service trip. Each monthly meeting would consist of an academic class where students would be encouraged to critically think about some of the more complicated aspects of international service. These include asking whether or not their projects really help local citizens, if their efforts are worth the cost, and if they should even be involved in international service at all. “We really want them to understand what they’re engaging in so that they can be better citizens doing better actions to affect change here and abroad,” Powell says.

Youthlinc impacts countless lives, both abroad and at home. It gives locals in-country opportunities for development and improvement in their lives. Arguably, however, the impact on students is even more life-changing. “I really think it builds a lot of empathy for our students,” says Justin. This encourages students to continue in their quest to improve the world, fulfilling Youthlinc’s goal of creating lifetime humanitarians.

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