BYU grads ‘go forth to serve’ with Salt Lake City-based nonprofit

Utah News

At the southwest entrance to BYU campus, a sign is displayed with proud letters proclaiming the university’s unofficial motto: “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.”

Two BYU graduates have recently taken the challenge to heart. Alumnae Kelsi Christensen and Heidi Kuns have both gone on to work at nonprofit organization Youth Refugee Coalition in Salt Lake City.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 2014, Christensen went to work for Humanitarian Experience for Youth, a Salt-Lake-based organization that provides international service trips for youth more commonly known as HEFY. After three years of working there as a program director, she founded Youth Refugee Coalition as a sister organization to HEFY.

“The original idea was a result of the Church’s call to prayerfully and personally consider how we can serve refugees around the world,” she said. “I brought up the idea of starting a new nonprofit to the CEO of HEFY and the next day she made me executive director.”

Youth Refugee Coalition organizes trips for young adults to volunteer among refugees overseas, including in refugee camps.

Kelsi Christensen teaches violin lessons to refugee children while leading a Youth Refugee Coalition trip. (Kelsi Christensen)

“Entering a refugee camp is one thing,” Christensen said. “Creating a sustainable program based on a constantly changing political situation in refugee camps that could shut down any day was definitely a major test.”

Christensen said her experiences at BYU helped qualify her for the work she does now.

She studied abroad in Portugal through BYU direct enrollment and completed two on-campus internships — one through the Melvin J. Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance and one with BYU Athletics. Christensen was also recruited by HEFY while at BYU.

She said she chose to work in the nonprofit industry because she “wanted to do work that was meaningful” and make a lasting impact. However, she recalled having trouble evaluating whether certain nonprofits were the right solution to the problems they targeted.

“The reason I chose to first work for HEFY was because the purpose of their humanitarian trips is to bring the youth closer to Christ through service,” Christensen said. “Being able to influence the testimonies of teenagers was something that lit a fire within me. I knew building testimonies would have a further impact than this life and that was the ‘business’ I wanted to be in.”

According to Christensen, Youth Refugee Coalition’s mission is “to provide an opportunity for young adults to respond to call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to participate in the assistance of refugees around the world.”

Youth Refugee Coalition participants interact with refugee children at a camp. (Kelsi Christensen)

“This mission is important to me because it essentially inspires youth to follow the prophet by heeding to the Church’s call to serve refugees,” Christensen said. “Not only do they become allies of the refugees abroad, but they come home with a greater understanding of how to love and welcome refugees, strangers and all our brothers and sisters at home.”

Christensen said she loves the BYU motto “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.”

“Knowledge is power and the more knowledge we have, the more good we can do and the greater impact we can have. An education provides us with tools to help us serve and understand those around us better,” she said. “Through service, we gain more love and compassion.”

Kuns, who graduated from BYU with a master’s degree in public health in April 2019, has also taken the motto to heart.

Like Christensen, Kuns was introduced to Youth Refugee Coalition through HEFY. She was first a trip leader and then interned at Youth Refugee Coalition in the fall of 2018 for her master’s program field study. Kuns became a full-time employee in January when she was hired as a program director.

Kuns said people often asked her what she wanted to do following the completion of her master’s degree.

“I would always say I wanted to do something with global health,” she said.

The courses available at BYU were part of what led Kuns to her current work. She took a refugee and migrant health class and a nonprofit management class while studying for her master’s degree.

“Both helped me decide I wanted to work with refugee populations internationally,” Kuns said.

One of her professors was HEFY CEO Amy Antonelli, who learned Kuns wanted to work with refugees and then connected her with Youth Refugee Coalition.

Kuns said working for a nonprofit can be difficult, in part because it is usually not a very lucrative career. Despite this, she said it’s worth it.

Heidi Kuns looks out at Amman, Jordan while leading a trip for Youth Refugee Coalition. (Heidi Kuns)

“I think I just love that I get to be a part of a cause and culture I love and to feel like our efforts bring joy and resources to populations in need,” she said. “We might not get paid much, but we get to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves that we truly believe in and something we enjoy every day.”

Kuns said her BYU education prepared her to enter this field and to go forth to serve.

“My time at BYU taught me how to discuss complex issues, and to look at the research and then potential options for addressing those issues,” she said. “Now I get to continue looking at the research in relation to the issues we face in this field, but I also then get to design and implement a plan of action in the real world.”

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