Service Missionaries in San Diego Honored with California State Parks’ Highest Volunteer Award—an Historic First

Contributed By Eleanor Cain Adams, Church News staff writer

  • 1 March 2019

This picture of Elder Spencer Larsen helping a blind man through Old Town San Diego State Historic Park embodies the dedication of service missionaries, says Tim Downing, the volunteer coordinator for California State Parks. Service missionaries at Old Town were recently awarded the State Parks’ highest honor—the Volunteer Medallion for Superior Achievement. It is the first community award ever given to service missionaries.  Photo courtesy of Tim Downing.

Article Highlights

  • Church service missionaries in San Diego received the program’s first community service award.
  • Church service missionaries make a lasting impact on their community.
  • Giving “pure service” in Christlike ways can change hearts and create opportunities.

“To be presented an honor like this shows the quality of service rendered by these remarkable young people. It’s a real commendation to the service missionaries who are on their missions living at home and serving the Lord. We’re humbled by it.” —Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, General Authority Seventy

It’s the consistent, small acts of service—all done with a smile—that set apart the young Latter-day Saint service missionaries volunteering at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

That's according to Tim Downing, volunteer coordinator for California State Parks, who said, “We can always expect them to be there with a smile; they’re being polite; they’re willing to learn what they need to do.”

In fact, when Downing tells anyone about the young service missionary program at Old Town, he likes to use one photo in particular because it’s—in his words—the “epitome of everything that everybody should be doing.”

The photo, shot from behind, shows a blind man holding on to a service missionary’s shoulder as the missionary leads him through the park (see photo above). Elder Richard and Sister Jennifer Bramwell, the service mission leaders who spearheaded the service mission program at Old Town, said the missionary would often help the blind man—a frequent park visitor—between his shifts, at breaks, and even during lunch.

Although the missionary, Elder Spencer Larsen, has since finished his service mission, the impact his small act of kindness had on Downing’s view of the Church service missionaries is memorable. “This picture, to me, represents the quality, dedication, and compassion these missionaries have for their community,” Downing said.

A historic award

That consistent, positive presence over the last two-and-a-half years—compounded with around 4,000 volunteer hours of service—is why Downing decided to award the Volunteer Medallion for Superior Achievement to the Bramwells on January 26, 2019, in honor of the service they’ve given to the park with the young service missionary program.

Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, the General Authority Seventy who has been given responsibility for the service missionary program, said this is the first community award ever received by young service missionaries—an historic first. “To be presented an honor like this shows the quality of service rendered by these remarkable young people. It’s a real commendation to the service missionaries who are on their missions living at home and serving the Lord. We’re humbled by it.”

The Medallion award is the most prestigious given by California State Parks to volunteers. Downing only gives one each year.

“The Bramwells’ passion for not only the service mission but also their love of the park has helped to make the program the success it has been,” Downing said. “California State Parks needs more people like the Bramwells to have that passion and love for our parks.”

When the Bramwells started their mission three years ago, they never would have dreamed they’d be awarded the Medallion. For them, the award is a testament of the power of “pure service.”

“Hearts are changed, and that’s the difference a service missionary can make,” Sister Bramwell said. “Because a service missionary doesn’t teach, they just give pure service, there has been a great change in attitude and view of [missionaries] being at Old Town and around San Diego.”

That kind of service isn’t so different from the Latter-day Saints of the Mormon Battalion who helped settle San Diego more than 150 years ago—it’s the kind that makes a lasting impact.

California State Parks volunteer coordinator Tim Downing smiles with Elder Richard Bramwell and Sister Jennifer Bramwell. Downing presented the Bramwells with the Volunteer Medallion for Superior Achievement on January 26, 2019. The Bramwells served in the San Diego Service Missionary Area for three years, working with Downing to help start the Church service missionary program.

Church service missionaries participate in a Mormon Battalion reenactment march in San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Elder Richard Bramwell.

Church service missionaries participate in reenactments celebrating the efforts of the Mormon Battalion to help settle San Diego, California. Photo courtesy of Elder Richard Bramwell.

Church service missionaries at Old Town State Park help paint white picket fences during a service project. The service missionaries dress in period clothing and serve as museum docents at the park. Photo courtesy of Elder Richard Bramwell.

Church service missionaries eat lunch at Old Town State Historic Park. Service missionaries there have given over 4,000 hours of service over the last two years. Photo courtesy of Elder Richard Bramwell.

Paving the way like the Mormon Battalion

Spread across just 16 acres, Old Town State Park is the smallest state park in California. However, sitting right in the heart of San Diego, the urban park receives the most visitors—welcoming approximately 4 million guests each year.

Taking on that many visitors requires a unique kind of bravery from the service missionaries, Elder Bramwell pointed out.

“You may not and probably don’t have a companion, you’re walking into a California State Park on your assigned day to give service, you’re wearing period clothing, you’re wearing your black name badge, and that takes a tremendous amount of courage for a young man or young woman to do,” Bramwell said.

“Service missionaries can do hard things, even living at home. It doesn’t take going someplace distant to do hard things.”

Service missionaries participate in the immersive programs Old Town offers, including living history programs, guided tours, and museums. The service missionaries assigned to the park serve as docents, or museum guides, and also participate in special service projects and events at the park.

Old Town State Park sits adjacent to the Church-owned Mormon Battalion Historic Site and gives visitors a chance to dive into 19th-century San Diego. Proselyting missionaries, also dressed in period clothing, give tours at the neighboring Historic Site to explain how the Mormon Battalion helped settle the area.

For Elder Bramwell, the rare opportunity of watching service and proselyting missionaries work side-by-side is a wonderful thing.

“It’s really a heartwarming experience to see these service missionaries and the proselyting missionaries as their paths cross, which doesn’t happen often, but when they do, that’s a really tender scene,” he said.

The impact yet another Latter-day Saint group had on the San Diego community, like the Mormon Battalion had before them, wasn’t lost on Downing when he inscribed the award plaque for the Bramwells.

“Your passion, dedication, and commitment to the park is a direct link and living testament to the memory of the Mormon Battalion,” the plaque reads. “Like the Battalion, you both have helped lay a great community foundation here in the park.”

This plaque commemorates the service given by Church service missionaries at Old Town, comparing their service to that of the Mormon Battalion before them. Photo courtesy of Elder Richard Bramwell.

A remarkable impact at Old Town

Indeed, whether represented by a single photograph or by the numbers, Downing said the dedication given by these service missionaries has been remarkable. Their combined service hours in 2017 and 2018 made up 12 percent of the total service hours given to the park during that time—the work equivalent of 2.5 part-time staff members and 2 full-time staff members, Downing said.

“These missionaries have allowed us to keep museums open that would otherwise be closed due to staffing issues,” Downing said. “The missionaries have allowed the staff the flexibility to work with our School Program, which sees about 12,000 kids a year. To be very honest, there have been days the park would not have run as smooth as it has had we not had the service missionaries.”

And now, just as the Mormon Battalion paved the way for so many others after them, the group of service missionaries at Old Town has opened the doors of additional service missionary possibilities in California.

“What has happened in Old Town State Park has been so well received by the state of California that they are anxious and desirous to have service missionaries serve throughout the entire state park system,” Elder Bramwell said.

The example of the Old Town service missionaries shows just how valuable service missionaries can be, Elder Nielsen said. “We hope that this will encourage other local charitable and community organizations to consider allowing service missionaries to come in and serve within their organizations.”

The value of missionary service

Young service missionaries, different than their proselyting counterparts, volunteer in their hometowns as close to full time as their circumstances allow, up to 18 months for women and up to 24 months for men. Elder Nielsen said there are currently more than 800 young service missionaries and about 22,000 total Church service missionaries (including senior missionaries) serving worldwide.

Since January 2019, any young adult desiring to give missionary service now applies through the same online portal. An assignment comes from an Apostle to proselyting and service missionaries alike, and then they both receive a call letter signed by the prophet. Elder Nielsen said this unified application process gives equal opportunities to all who want a chance to serve God and their fellow man, regardless of their health condition.

The Bramwells, who previously served as mission presidents in Ohio, said the highlight of their mission in the San Diego Service Missionary Area has been seeing the young service missionaries’ lives change as they become better prepared for life after their missions. Service missionaries “try so hard and give all of their heart and stretch and grow just as much as our proselyting missionaries,” Sister Bramwell said.

The growth isn’t just limited to the young service missionaries though, and the Bramwells were quick to note how their missionary service has blessed their own lives.

“Being able to be a missionary and live at home is unique; we enjoy that,” Elder Bramwell said. “Hopefully more senior couples will have the opportunity that we have had to connect with these outstanding service missionaries who are giving so much in so many different ways.”

Elder Nielsen said the Bramwells are a great example of how the senior Church service missionaries can mentor and support the service missionaries to accomplish great things, like the Medallion award.

Church service missionaries serve in unique ways, Elder Nielsen pointed out. Though not all service missionaries may receive top awards from their community like the ones at Old Town, all of them are known for serving with a smile and dedication.

“The charitable organizations and government municipalities where these service missionaries serve all say the same thing—that they’ve got the heart of a true volunteer,” Elder Nielsen said. “They serve consistently during the week, day in and day out, making a difference with a smile on their face. It’s tremendous. You can see their testimony of Jesus Christ in their service.”