Great Things Are Happening in Deseret Industries
By Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News staff writer
In August of 1938—a time when many in Utah were seeking employment and struggling to provide necessities for themselves and their families—the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric sent a letter to local priesthood leaders announcing a new project.
“In a further effort to provide opportunities for individuals to become self-sustaining, there has been organized in the Salt Lake Region of the Church Welfare Plan a project to be known as Deseret Industries,” the leaders wrote in the August 10, 1938, letter.
Deseret Industries was a Church-run thrift store that would collect used clothing and other items to help those in need.
The First Presidency wrote that they could see “great promise” in the “momentous movement” and asked members to “give liberally of those articles that might have value in the Deseret Industries but of little value to the present owner.”
Elder Glen L. Rudd, an emeritus General Authority who spent years working in Church Welfare, said Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley responded. “So much stuff came in they didn’t have a place to put it all,” he said.
Some 75 years later, the Church has 42 Deseret Industries stores in the western United States that annually collect and distribute more than 40 million pounds of donations. Yet the Deseret Industries mission, to help individuals find work and meet their true potential, remains the same as it did in 1938.
Through the Deseret Industries:
• Individuals receive employment and language training that will help them find work.
• Families in need, with a recommendation from a bishop or a partnering community organization, receive clothing and other items.
• Church members who have more than they need donate unused supplies and provide service.
In essence, Deseret Industries today functions as a bishops’ storehouse for non-food commodities. A bishop can send anyone to a store to get furniture or bedding or anything else he or she may feel they need, said Elder Rudd.
“There are hundreds of stories of people who are hopeless,” said Elder Rudd. “You give them a chance to work and they will respond. We are the people that will help them. …
“Great things are happening in Deseret Industries.”
Deseret Industries offers a variety of training opportunities to help individuals gain the skills they need for today’s job market, said Leland R. Hardy, director of Deseret Industries and Employment Resource Services.
“Our model is all about training,” he explained. “Training them to get ready for employment.”
The people referred by their bishops to Deseret Industries often have barriers to employment—including language skills, disabilities, or addictions. Others lack education or a work ethic, he explained. Once in the Deseret Industries system, they are assigned a job coach as well as a development specialist to help them gain needed skills. Mentors from their home ward also support them in their effort to become self-sufficient.
Some 8,500 individuals are served by the program each year. Brother Hardy expects that number to be closer to 10,000 in 2013.
Many individuals who are referred to Deseret Industries by their bishops come in feeling that “hope is gone, the light is out,” said Brother Hardy. “They work with us, and the light is turned back on. That is the great miracle of this whole program.”
That is what happened to Osman Sillah, who worked as a tailor for 30 years in his home country of Sierra Leone. However, due to recent political instability, he came to the United States. In January of 2012 he moved to Utah, where he could live with his brother, and began investigating the Church; soon he was baptized.
Still, as a father of four children who was almost 60 years old, he needed to find a way to support his family in the United States. His bishop referred him to Deseret Industries.
Brother Sillah had to learn basic English before seeking employment. He attended English classes four times a week for almost a year and practiced English with others working at the Deseret Industries.
When he had sufficient English skills, Brother Sillah’s supervisor helped him make a résumé. A ward member told him of a job opening as a tailor at a local men’s clothing store; Brother Sillah got an interview for the job.
Deseret Industries “provided time to practice on an industrial sewing machine to help me prepare,” said Brother Sillah. “I took the test, and the director said I have great tailoring skills and would call me. A week later I was offered a position.”
Brother Hardy said that Deseret Industries is a particular blessing for refugees, who can learn English and receive job training at the same time.
“When you see what happens in a Deseret Industries, you know that caring is taking place,” he said.
Once someone completes the program, “the sky is the limit for what they can accomplish.”
He often thinks of the visions that Church leaders saw for the Deseret Industries in 1938. “When you have an anniversary, you always have the opportunity to look back and look forward. … We have great feelings about both the past and the future of Deseret Industries.”