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Exhaustion, exultation, excitement: The life of an FSY counselor

Groups of energetic adolescents in colorful T-shirts overtake the BYU campus each summer with annual FSY sessions.

For the Strength of Youth, better known as FSY, is a week-long program run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that involves activities, classes and devotionals devoted to bringing the Church’s youth closer to the gospel, developing new friendships and bolstering self-esteem. Many FSY sessions take place weekly on BYU campus, as well as other college campuses across the country, hosting hundreds of 14-to-18-year-olds.

Young adults throughout the Church are invited to apply to be FSY counselors every year. If an individual is accepted, counselors are randomly assigned to serve in sessions across the U.S. They are tasked with the responsibilities of leading their designated youth group through a week of energy-filled and spiritually strengthening activities.

“You’re babysitting, basically, 20 teenagers, just hoping they’ll have a good experience. And then it always exceeds my expectation of how much they change,” current counselor Jared Mehr said.

Several FSY counselors opened up about their experiences with the program, discussing both their takeaways and biggest challenges.

Why sign up in the first place?

The packed schedule and long hours required of FSY counselors may seem unappealing to some, yet hundreds of FSY counselors sign up every year, for a variety of reasons. One being having a memorable experience as a participant.

“I loved FSY as a kid and I just wanted to be able to experience it from the counselor side of things,” former counselor Audree Wells said.

Kaitlyn Massey was an FSY counselor in both 2022 and 2023, and first decided to apply when her mom suggested it. She was going through a difficult time with Church and school and felt she was not in a good place to do it.

“I decided to apply and I got offered a job, so I decided to do it and it was awesome,” Massey said. “I wanted the opportunity to help kids like me, who were struggling to be able to feel God’s love and to be able to feel better about the Church from their testimonies.”

Others said they found inspiration to join because of their missions.

Mehr shared he received an email about being an FSY counselor during the last transfer of his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and felt a prompting to apply during April 2023 General Conference. He shared how serving others at FSY helped bridge the gap between his mission and “normal life.”

“It was really hard transitioning back home. FSY was a bright spot in that whole process, helping me to still be able to share the gospel and get to serve others 24/7,” Mehr said.

He added that the free housing, food, transportation and $800 per week is definitely a contributing factor.

While several counselors cited helping the youth come closer to Christ as the main reason for becoming a counselor, others did it for interpersonal reasons as well — seeing it as an opportunity for social connection.

Wells explained the dynamic between counselors changes based on the location of the session. Counselors in California can only work eight-hour days to adhere to state law, Wells said, which creates more free time.

“You’d go to the beach and stuff on the weekends, so you have more of that social side of things. For the most part, I would say it was an uplifting social atmosphere that was centered around the kids and we had the same goal,” Wells said.

According to Mehr, some FSY counselors also see the job as a possibility for finding romance.

“Every company has a guy and a girl counselor, so people have their eyes open for potentials for dating. Which I don’t necessarily view as a bad thing,” Mehr said. “I think it’s part of the reason why the program is set up, honestly.”

Challenges with the youth

Wrangling groups of teenagers for weeks at a time is no easy feat, according to the FSY counselors.

An FSY counselor leads her group to lunch on BYU campus. FSY counselors shared both the challenges and triumphs of their time in the program. (Payton Pingree)

“It’s very exhausting — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, physically,” Mehr said. “It’s exhausting, but it is so worth it. You see miracles every day when you’re working with the kids and when you’re trying to see them as God sees them.”

Angie Madeux, a former counselor, shared how learning to work with kids of various backgrounds and personalities can sometimes present challenges.

“There’s a lot of kids that have maybe gone through a lot of hard experiences and it kind of presents itself in some different ways. I think for counselors, the hardest part is knowing how to work with kids that are not the easiest to work with because of those experiences,” Madeux said.

Massey echoed Madeux’s thoughts and explained that the stress and sleep deprivation combined with combatting personalities can create conflict, especially when the youth have trouble with complying with the program rules.

“A lot of times, parents will push their kids into FSY. Sometimes the kids will take it out on us because they’re like, ‘if I’m miserable, everybody’s going to be miserable,'” Massey said.

FSY counselors and youth abide by a strict set of rules during the program, some of which, Mehr said, are difficult to enforce, especially for the older kids.

“There are a couple rules that, for the older kids, seem a little childish because we need to keep track of them,” he said.

Some of these rules include the rule of three, which states that participants cannot go get a drink or go to the bathroom unless they have their counselor and another person with them, and the lights out rule, making sure youth are in their dorms at a certain time at night.

Wells shared how she was anxious about certain policies the counselors were taught at their week-long training before the sessions started.

According to the FSY employment policies, counselors are instructed to be careful when discussing “Sensitive Topics” with the youth. These topics include mental health issues, gender identity and same-sex attraction.

The policy states that counselors should not dismiss concerns the youth have about these topics, but approach them with caution. The policy offers several suggestions for how counselors should handle these situations, including “respectfully acknowledging the participant’s concerns,” “gently informing those present that FSY staff are not trained nor hired to address that topic,” “testifying of the Savior’s Atonement” and “referring the participant to parents, ecclesiastical leaders or other trusted adults for additional love and support.”

Wells had an experience with one of her assigned youth that brought these concerns to the surface.

“I was terrified of how this was all going to work out because one week I did have somebody who was (LGBT), and hadn’t come out to their parents. … But seeing this kid who was dealing with these things come to FSY and being able to hear her bear her testimony strengthened me so much,” Wells said.

Getting along with co-counselors

The mix of contrasting personalities not only lies in the youth at FSY, but also among the leadership.

Flavio Jauregui, another former counselor, began his FSY counselor experience with anxieties about not fitting in with the other counselors.

“I’m outgoing and extroverted, but I didn’t have that same energy they did. I was debating on not even doing it,” Jauregui said. “But I felt prompted to stay. I was there for specific youth like the way that I was, and it was super good.”

Massey said FSY counselors tend to fall into two categories in terms of personality.

“I feel like there are two extremes with FSY counselors. There are FSY counselors who are the fun counselors, and they’re the ones who are leading the dances and who are helping the kids during game night. And then there’s the other extreme, which only focus on the spiritual stuff and want to make sure the kids have fantastic testimonies by the end,” Massey said.

Despite the different outlooks on the program, Massey’s experience bonded her with fellow counselors and she met friends with whom she still connects.

Other counselors opened up about challenges they experienced with certain coworkers. Jauregui struggled with “nit-picky” co-counselors who reported him to FSY coordinators and Madeux encountered cliques among counselors in California.

Life-changing lessons

The Christ-centered and collaborative nature of FSY allows the youth to connect with the Church and other youth.

FSY schedules many opportunities for the youth to be spiritually fed throughout the week, according to Mehr. These activities include morning gospel study, personal scripture study, classes taught by local seminary teachers, daily devotionals and nightly reflections.

“We’re able to talk about (the gospel) together and transform those thoughts and reflections into action and goals,” Mehr said of the nightly reflection activities.

Massey and other counselors shared how impactful it is to see the youth who go from not knowing much about the gospel to bearing their testimonies of the Church by the end of the week.

Madeux said he thinks the environment of FSY allows people to look past the surface and create friendships where they normally would not be comfortable.

“I think that people are able to see each other differently when they can just have fun together. I always try to encourage people to talk to each other because we also have to talk to each other to know each other,” Massey said. “I think also being able to share vulnerable and spiritual moments together is another way that people are able to unite even when they are different.”

Wells also found this type of connection in her own groups.

“One week, I had a kid who was high-functioning but he had autism. Being able to watch how the kids interacted with him and being able to help him feel like a part of the group was a cool experience,” Wells said.

Some of the counselors had advice for others considering signing up as an FSY counselor in the future. Mehr described it as a preparation tool for the next big steps in life, calling it a “crash course in parenting times 100.”

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that being a counselor has changed my life for the better. It’s brought me closer to my Savior. It’s helped me understand the Church from a different perspective,” Mehr said.

Wells added to this sentiment, saying a counselor’s intentions matter.

“If you are in it for the right reasons and you just want to help the youth, then everything else just falls into place,” she said.

While FSY may be an exhausting, challenging and demanding program for the counselors, Massey said she believes the youth need it more than ever.

“Being with the youth has made me realize how hard things have gotten since I was a teenager,” Massey said. “The kids more than anything need to know that they’re loved both by their counselors and staff, but also by their Heavenly Parents and Christ.”

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