Young Elders Find Purpose in Church-Service Missions
By Whitney Evans, Church News staff writer
In a simple game for children, blocks of different shapes are put through holes in the top of a bucket. It is important to match the right block with a hole of a similar shape to avoid unnecessary frustration and time wasted.
Like the various shapes of this game, Heavenly Father’s children are all different. They come from varied backgrounds and have different talents and gifts. Because of this, there are many opportunities to serve within the Church, including service missions available to those for whom a full-time mission is not a good fit.
As the Church expands, so does its need for volunteers and service missionaries. Service missions range from conducting trainings and making classroom visits to assisting with family history and welfare. Service missionaries need to commit to at least eight hours a week and provide for their own housing, transportation, and living needs. They also need to be temple worthy and physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of fulfilling the duties of their calling. There are more than 15,000 Church-service missionaries serving globally.
For three young men living in Salt Lake City, service missions have provided an opportunity to give. Each has found purpose and direction through his service mission and has been able to use his unique talents to bless Heavenly Father’s children.
Elder Cameron Judd has cerebral palsy. Although restricted in his activities—he has limited use of his arms, is in a wheelchair, and cannot speak—he wanted to serve a mission to strengthen his testimony. In order to communicate, he uses a computer connected to his wheelchair. A sensor within the machine tracks where his eyes are looking. Pictures appear on Elder Judd’s computer screen and through his gaze he selects pictures to generate a sentence that is spoken by a voice on his computer.
He and his companion, Elder Adam Bandis, go around to different special needs seminary classrooms teaching students about service missions, introducing them to technology that will help them learn about the gospel and more easily participate in classes, and helping them learn how to more effectively communicate with one another, among other things.
During a recent class visit for special needs students enrolled in seminary adjacent to East High School in Salt Lake City, Elder Judd was not shy about interjecting comments throughout the presentation.
“Wherever I serve, it’s great.”
“I love my mission.”
“You guys should go on a mission. All of you.”
His social nature is not a surprise to Sister Sally Hanna, Elder Judd’s supervisor, who described him as bright and opinionated, with a desire to succeed.
Elder Trever Vallieres, who has muscular dystrophy, is also confined to a wheelchair, but he can speak and has full use of his arms. He ably navigates technology at the Salt Lake Valley Institute and trains classes of special needs youth on how to access and use the technology.
Elder Trevor Vallieres, left, discusses specifics of a presentation with Elder Cameron Judd. Photo by Whitney Evans.
For instance, the LDS.org app provides a way for nonverbal students to participate in the lesson. They can select an appropriate verse and click on the audio option, which will allow them to feel like they are verbally reading the scriptures. There are also more advanced apps that can be customized to allow the student to select pictures that generate a dictated prayer. Students can use their own iPad or a similar device if they own one. Sister Hanna said she has seen participation increase sharply when students utilize these technologies.
“It gives them a voice, and when they have a voice they learn faster,” Sister Hanna said.
Shortly after the start of his service mission, Elder Vallieres’s perspective on the worth of souls was sharpened during a talent show put on by people who are developmentally delayed and with disabilities, whom he usually served. He said the students “sang their hearts out” into the microphone, and regardless of what each performance sounded like, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. He knew that if this had been a regular talent show, the performers would have been criticized for the flat notes or missed words. Through the way these students treated each other, he was able to see in a small way the love that Heavenly Father has for each person.
That he has incorporated this love into his life is evident by how he treats the students he encounters during classroom visits to special needs seminary classes. During a recent classroom visit, he beamed when a student came up and hugged him impromptu.
He patiently listened as students interrupted his presentation to shout out comments like, “I like your video.”
During this visit, he fielded questions—mostly from the special needs students’ helpers—about the trach device that helps him breathe (he doesn’t have enough lung capacity to cough, so the device helps provide his lungs with that power), whether or not he has a companion (service missionaries do not need to have companions, but they can if the situation dictates) and if he had been to the temple in order to be a service missionary (he, Elder Bandis, and Elder Judd are endowed, but it’s not required).
Throughout the class, he kept an eye on Elder Judd’s computer screen and would pause to give Elder Judd a chance to comment whenever he thought he saw typing on the screen. Near the end of the presentation, he encouraged the students to prayerfully consider a service mission.
“This isn’t just for people who have special needs like myself, or who require a wheelchair like Elder Judd. Anyone can do this at any point in time in your life,” Elder Vallieres said.
Tall with blond hair, Elder Adam Bandis read his favorite scripture to the class in a soft voice. With quiet dignity, he helped Elder Judd get situated in the seminary classroom and ran slideshow presentations for Elder Vallieres.
Elder Adam Bandis teaches an object lesson to students in a special needs seminary class adjacent to East High School in Salt Lake City. Photo by Whitney Evans.
He told the Church News that he had a goal to help teach others about nontraditional mission options that can put them in a position to bless Heavenly Father’s children even if full-time missionary service is not a good fit for them.
Each morning he wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready. By 8:30 he picks up his companion, Elder Judd. The two drive over to the day’s assignment in a van provided by Elder Judd’s parents, appropriately dubbed the “CamVan” after Elder Judd’s first name, in order to begin missionary work by 9:00 a.m.
“He is just so talented in love,” said Sister Hanna, coordinator of the Salt Lake Valley Institute, of Elder Bandis.
Salt Lake Valley Institute offers classes for 18- to 30-year-olds, and approximately 162 students attend. They provide gospel instruction for special needs students up to age 30 who have graduated from high school.
Sister Hanna said that many special needs students gain skills throughout high school but when they graduate they face the possibility of stagnating and regressing. This is especially the case for those whose families cannot afford assisted living. These individuals run the risk of staying at home and losing the social skills they have developed. For this reason, Sister Hanna and others have made the push for them to come to institute classes.
She said if nothing else, the institute classes offer the special needs young adults a way to be social and feel independent.
Recruiting students for institute is difficult, mainly because many students are homebound and need help to get around.
Students who attend the specific special needs schools in the Salt Lake Valley during high school—Jordan Valley, Kauri Sue, and Hartvigsen School—can continue attending those schools and receive institute credit instead of seminary. The others, however, are a little more difficult to track down. For this reason, part-time teachers and service missionaries go to work to find and retain special needs institute attendees.
Every year seminary and institute leaders write down how many missionaries they need and then stakes are allocated to give certain people assignments, or people can sign up for a service mission online. Elders Judd, Bandis, and Vallieres have been blessings for Sister Hanna to work with.
“We were lucky enough to get them,” Sister Hanna said.
It is apparent that these elders feel lucky to be serving as well.
“I know institute is a great tool for learning about the gospel, and I know that missions are awesome, especially the one that we’re doing,” Elder Bandis counseled students near the end of a classroom visit. “If you do decide to go on a mission, the Lord will guide you in what’s right for you.”