ORANGE - When people envision how our local youth spend their discretionary time, what comes to mind. Many have enough resources to participate in a veritable variety of self-indulgent, self-satisfying pursuits. However, many of our local youth are more concerned about serving others rather than themselves.

Elizabeth "Beth" Rafferty has been blessed with the opportunity to work with just such a group of young people. They might spend a weekend at the Orange Country Fair, working at the Orange Congregational Church booth in the Civic Tent. Or they could be found devoting their weekend to milking goats, gathering pumpkins, and helping children learn about Heifer Project International at Overlook Farm in Massachusetts. Or they might spend an evening making cookies for the residents at Orange Health Care, or maybe a day working with the Connecticut Food Bank. But for an ongoing commitment to serving others, they choose to work for and with Youth United of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI).

Rafferty is the Youth Director for the Orange Congregational Church. Her duties include being responsible for coordinating the activities for the Senior and Junior Pilgrim Fellowships

."Youth United gets the kids involved in every aspect of Habitat," says Rafferty. "There are monthly planning meetings with Youth United where we discuss and decide on fundraisers, workday activities, and make other important decisions for the Youth United Home build." Four teens from Orange regularly attend these meetings: Mike Kordiak, Jen Gagel, Stuart King, and Amy Relihan.

Most people know of the work done by HFHI to help end poverty housing, and that one of its most famous workers is former President Jimmy Carter. Youth United in a new initiative of HFHI provides the opportunity for youth ages 5-25 from different schools, organizations, and faiths to work together to sponsor and build a house for a deserving low-income family in need.

"Youth United has been developed to unify diverse groups of youth in a common effort to put their energy and commitment to good use and show young people that they can make a difference in people's lives, says Youth United Volunteer Coordinator Nikita Lawrence.

Habitat for Humanity of Bridgeport has been chosen by HFHI as the designated Kick-Off point for Youth United in the Northeast. In fact, when HFHI founder and president Millard Fuller came to Bridgeport on April 8, 2003 for the Kick-Off, several Orange young people were there to greet him. That meeting began a year of planning, raising funds, and ultimately building the Youth United House, says Lawrence.

"Not only does Youth United allow all youth to participate in constructive age-appropriate activities, but it empowers youth to become leaders in their schools, organizations, and churches by giving them essential roles in every phase of the Youth United building on and off site."

"Youth United has monthly workdays, in which our teenagers participate," says Rafferty. "We have put up siding, painted the inside of houses, put up a chain link fence, done landscaping, and helped in a multitude of ways. Our next workday is Feb. 7. "

The Orange Congregational Church SR High Youth Group is active in Habitat for Humanity and they are currently trying to raise money to build a house in Bridgeport this spring. So the teenagers have decided to hold a "Habitat Awareness Vigil" outside the church on Friday, Jan. 30 from 7 p.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday morning. They will construct a "Shanty Town" of cardboard boxes in front of the church and all the teenagers will take 2 hour shifts in groups of twos outside in the boxes all night long. The Youth Group wants to promote their work with Habitat for Humanity and also needs to raise $2,000 in order to start building the house in Bridgeport, so each teenager is collecting sponsors and donations for this "Habitat Awareness Vigil".