By Gerhard Schneibel

Activities to better yourself are a part of growing up and go hand in hand with helping others, say young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Glenridge Drive in Sandy Springs.

High school girls from the Mormon church go to the Genesis Shelter in downtown Atlanta to cook dinner once a month under a “personal progress” program. The program aims to teach them about eight values, including faith, choice and accountability, integrity, and virtue. The Genesis Shelter assists homeless and abused women and lets homeless families stay together.

Lauren Kane, a senior at the Marist School, said she initially participating in the Genesis Shelter project to fulfill the Brookhaven school’s required service hours, but “once I saw what we were doing, I became more involved. I got to hear the women’s stories, and I became more interested.”

She added: “It makes me appreciate more what my parents did for me, and I also get to bond with the other girls. It kind of makes me see their situation. Otherwise, you don’t really realize that there are women out there who are placed in these situations.”

Debbie Lackley, the local president of the Latter-Day Saints Young Women’s Organization, said each of the values the girls learn at the Genesis Shelter is incorporated into service. Girls in the personal progress program range from 12 to 18 years old and do one 10-hour service project and six experience-based projects.

“After a while of doing it, it becomes more than just service to them,” Lackley said. “They love it, and they love the people they get to meet. The opportunity to bring people together by volunteering is so fulfilling.”

Tanya Kocengina, a junior at Riverwood International Charter High School in Sandy Springs, isn’t a Mormon but volunteers with the other girls to spend time with friends. She also volunteers for the Red Cross.

“It’s a good thing to do, and we have stuff to give, so why not?” she said. “The women in the shelter need help, and there are people who have money and stuff to give, so it’s important that we share that.”

Aubrey Warnick, also a junior at Riverwood, is participating in the personal progress program. She said the best part of volunteering is seeing the reactions of the people they help.

“You get to see people that are down, and you get to serve them. It’s kind of a selfish thing, but it makes you feel good,” she said.

Melissa Lackley, a junior at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, said the program is “just a good use of my time.”

“The little kids are really grateful for it, and they just go to you for attention. You can tell their mothers really appreciate it,” she said. “It’s the little things that make a difference. We just help them get through the day.”

Danielle Cox, a freshman at Dunwoody High School, said she likes doing charity because “you’re just making someone else’s day better, and it’s nice to help others. You don’t take as much for granted, just like having good food to eat every day.”

Other girls from the Sandy Springs church who participate in the program are Brenna Davidson, Ariel Abamonte, Gabby Robinson and Aubree Stoddard.

Debbie Lackley said that once girls complete the personal progress program, they receive “young womanhood recognition,” which they can use on college applications.

“It helps prepare them for the things they’ll hopefully do as an adult, like working in the community and being involved,” she said. “It helps them gain skills for some of the things they’ll be expected to do, like learn how to prepare a meal and learn how to shop for a meal.”