When Katy Ballenger started a service club at her Salt Lake City high school, she didn't expect it to become a big thing. Yet the HUGS (Help Us Give Service) Club she created has stirred up a bit of attention, the latest round of which came in the form of a prestigious national award.
In November, Ballenger, now a freshman at BYU, traveled to Washington, D.C., where she and 20 others (11 adults and 10 youth in all) were honored with the 1996 National Caring Awards, sponsored by the Caring Institute. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was a 1995 recipient, and Ballenger was joined this year by, among others, naturalist Jane Goodall, Utah billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman, and Operation Smile founders Bill and Kathy Magee.
Ballenger was also one of five high school students nationwide to be presented the Prudential Spirit of Community Award last May, and she has received numerous honors on a state and local level.
While the 18-year-old admits she enjoys the honors and publicity, she says her motivation is found elsewhere.
"The true grand award," she says, "is what I have gained, personally, from this experience. There's nothing that could replicate that or could outshine that."
Ballenger began reaping the rewards of service when she was 15 and signed up to volunteer at Primary Children's Medical Center where she met a 2-year-old terminally ill boy named Joshua. While playing with Joshua, she saw him smile--the first smile he'd had since coming to the hospital.
"I realized then that I was making a difference in this child's life and that I could make a difference," remembers Ballenger. "Then I wanted to start my quest to bring smiles to other faces."
During the next year, while a sophomore in high school, Ballenger logged about 500 hours of service on her own, from feeding the homeless to picking up trash on the freeway. At the end of the year, she says, she realized how much she had benefitted from service. "My whole life, I felt, had been changed through this process, and I wanted to share this with my friends and with other teenagers."
When she began her junior year at Olympus High School, Ballenger started HUGS to share her love of service. Within three months, more than 150 students had joined the club, and during Ballenger's final two years at Olympus, the club members performed about 2,500 hours of service for sick children, the elderly, the homeless, and each other.
HUGS has caught on. The club, open to students regardless of grades or other activities, continues at Olympus, and Orem High School has formed a HUGS Club that boasts more than 280 members. A Salt Lake City elementary school has also started a club, and Ballenger has received requests for information from people in nearly every state.
"I'd love to see it in every school across the country," she says. "Even if it wasn't a HUGS, I'd love to see a service organization where kids are really getting involved."
To achieve that goal, Ballenger is spreading the word. For the last two years, she has presented workshops to educators at a national conference, and she speaks regularly at schools, firesides, and youth groups. Crowned Miss Teen Utah in August 1996, Ballenger speaks regularly through her official duties, and she usually finds a way to bring up service.
She tells people that service creates the three "selves"--self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence--that teens often struggle to find.
In the quest for these "selves," Ballenger says, many teens turn to gangs and drugs. She tells of one such student at her high school who began doing service through HUGS.
"He went from failing out of school, involved in drugs, involved in gangs, to his senior year getting straight As, clean for a year, having friends, just doing well," she says. "I'm not saying it's all service, but I think it has a lot to do with it because you learn so many things about yourself. You learn to love yourself, you learn to love others. You learn to respect others, you learn to respect yourself."
Now at BYU and no longer officially affiliated with the HUGS Club at Olympus, Ballenger continues to speak about the club as she seeks to create a national organization. She is also writing a manual to show how to start a HUGS Club.
In addition to her HUGS activities, her duties as Miss Teen Utah, and the everyday rigors of college life, Ballenger still finds time to be on the BYU Folk Dance Ensemble and, of course, to give service regularly.
"If I'm not involved doing these kinds of things, I'm totally bored," she says, "I feel like I'm not productive at all."
More than that, she has a vision for service, for making a difference. "If everyone gave back to the community, did their share, then we would really be living in a better society, a Zion."