Relief Society Presidents Prove … The Second Mile Is Paved with Innovation, Part 2


Traditionally, one of Relief Society’s most important roles has been compassionate service. Is there still a place for it in today’s organization? A chorus from several continents places it where it has always been—at the heart of Relief Society.

Carl R. Okelberry, the thirty-eight-year-old bishop of the Ensign Third Ward in Salt Lake City, died of cancer in the fall of 1977, leaving his wife Doreen and four children. During his eighteen-month illness, “the Relief Society absolutely poured out their hearts to us,” said Sister Okelberry. “Sisters would take time to phone when they were going shopping and ask what they could pick up for me. Someone was always taking the children for an afternoon—which was one of the things I needed most. One family picked peaches for me; two other sisters canned them. Another sister canned pears for me during the funeral; I couldn’t have asked for anything I needed more than that. Food often came anonymously. One sister went so far as to put some money in our checking account.”

When Bishop Okelberry was released six months before his death, the Relief Society presidency, in conjunction with other ward members, honored him with a quilt, stitched with the outline of the ward chapel. On the front was a pattern of yellow roses, a symbol of hope and faith to the family ever since their neighbors, the Van Komens, had given them a plaque of a yellow rose inscribed, “Where there is great love, there are always great miracles.”

The lives of the two families were closely entwined by mutual sorrow—the Van Komens’ only child, an adopted daughter, died of cancer during Bishop Okelberry’s illness. When George Van Komen was called as the next bishop of the ward, Bishop Okelberry planted a yellow rose bush in the Van Komens’ garden for Sister Susan Van Komen’s birthday and told the ward that the “great miracle is not always in survival. It’s in this outpouring of love and understanding that lives are touched through acts of compassionate service.”

Since her husband’s death, Sister Okelberry has found the same compassion. One sister, who formerly served with her on the Relief Society stake board, goes with her to the temple. One Young Adult Relief Society leader came in every evening during the hour when Sister Okelberry’s husband had normally come home, and she helped prepare dinner and put the children to bed. One sister went to Idaho and dug potatoes for her. A man in his late seventies in the ward always brings her a loaf of his bread when he bakes. Another family cleaned her yard. Others fixed her car.

“These are the people who are dear to me,” she says. “Hundreds said, ‘If there’s anything I can do, please call.’ I know they were sincere, but the ones who helped me the most were the people who did not say it. They did it.”

Fern Walter, the ward Relief Society president, says simply, “The sisters in our ward are so gracious. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the bishop or a nonmember.” She told of a member of the Young Adult Relief Society who tended children so that young mothers could go to the funeral; of visiting teachers who pick up elderly couples and bring them to special activities; of food supplied and housecleaning done in times of bereavement or when new babies come; of visiting teachers who help moving members pack; and of companionship for the lonely.

“There’s such a tradition of service in this ward, and everyone is so aware of everyone’s needs, that on occasion we don’t even assign people for certain compassionate service opportunities. They’re there without being asked, doing things we never find out about.”

“Everyone clamors to help,” says Dorothy Hurley, president of the Newport Beach California Stake Relief Society. She told of one family in which the ten-year-old girl had been hit by a car and was in a coma for months. The sisters of the ward accompanied the mother to the hospital day after day, took care of the housekeeping, and watched the other children. “One testimony meeting was so touching because women got up and said, ‘We’ve never seen so much love and concern for a family. We know that if we need anything, we’ll have the same love to draw on.’”

Sister Hurley feels deeply about the Relief Society’s compassionate service. When her husband’s brother from Sacramento, a nonmember, died, she asked the distraught sister-in-law to leave the arrangements to her. She called the stake Relief Society president in Sacramento, and asked for help.

Sister Hurley reports that when she arrived for the funeral, the sister-in-law said, “‘Dorothy, you have the sweetest friends I’ve ever met in my life. They came over, showed me a menu, brought all this food, and have kept things in perfect order.’ I had to tell her, ‘Joan, I’ve never met them in my life. These are the women from my Church. And this isn’t just in this area. This kind of service happens all over the Church.’”

In August 1976 in the La Grande Oregon Stake, Virginia Gubler, a dance instructor, was crushed in a car accident. She was rushed to a Boise, Idaho, hospital. There the doctors discovered that her spine was severed, her left shoulder and several ribs crushed. She was told she would never walk again. After being administered to by the priesthood, however, Sister Gubler stated that she knew she would walk again and would be able to care for her several children.

The compassion of Church members of the Boise Fifth Ward and Baker Oregon First and Second wards helped to sustain her during the three months she spent in rehabilitation in Boise. The first Sunday following the accident, as she lay upside down on a striker frame, facing the floor, Brother Mike Madison, a counselor in the Fifth Ward bishopric, brought two priests to the hospital to administer the sacrament to her. Sister Gubler stated that this spiritual experience and act of kindness helped to sustain her through long hours of pain and despondency.

She was visited often by Shirley Garrett, Boise Fifth Ward Relief Society president; and Marilyn Spencer, a mother of five with a sixth on the way, came daily to read to her. Ruth Weatherspoon, Sister Gubler’s own Relief Society president in the Baker Oregon First Ward, traveled 240 miles round trip on several occasions to see her, as did many other Church members.

In November, Sister Gubler took her first step, and she was able to return home for Christmas. Before she went home, Sister Weatherspoon and Bishop Gwilliam assigned ward members to do her fall canning and supply other needs for the family; and after her return, Relief Society sisters were assigned to be in the home daily for five months, to help Sister Gubler with her personal needs and to care for the family and the home.

Sister Weatherspoon says, “Tears come to my eyes when I think of the compassionate service that has been bestowed on this family, and the high spirits and tremendous faith of Virginia Gubler, who now walks with but one leg brace and the aid of a cane.”

E. Brent Frazier, LDS Social Services agency director in New Hampshire, observed compassionate care at close range when the three-year-old daughter of a couple in his ward developed a brain tumor. “It could have shattered the family,” he said, “but the Relief Society, under the direction of the priesthood, stepped right in. A brother took the husband to work so that the wife could have the car to drive to the hospital in Boston almost daily. A Relief Society sister watched the younger son. Sisters on a regular basis would clean the house, prepare the evening meal, do the washing, shopping, and ironing. Thanks to the Relief Society, life for the family had gone on almost normally.”

Some projects are long-term, like the service given by the Young Adult Relief Society in the Casper Wyoming Stake; they help a blind member keep up with her scripture study by reading to her from the Book of Mormon.

Some service is given to meet one-time emergencies. During severe weather in the Fort Wayne Indiana Stake, the Relief Society checked with each sister who lived alone to be sure she had enough fuel and food. One sister who had been a member for twenty years said that this concern made her feel for the first time that she was really important to the Church.

In some areas, the Relief Society is joining hands with other Church organizations to provide doubly effective voluntary services within the Church, and has cooperated by enlisting the help of the sisters in special official assignments. (See Barbara B. Smith, “She Stretcheth Out Her Hand to the Poor,” Ensign, November 1977, p. 89.) This is illustrated by an example in Idaho Falls, where Relief Society sisters have a twelve-year history of providing the sensitive service needed for unwed mothers. It began as a Relief Society project in 1966 for what was then the Relief Society Social Services Agency, and Relief Society sisters are still serving as volunteers with the LDS Social Services program.

Bernice McCowin, president of the Idaho Falls Ammon Stake Relief Society, has been a member of the LDS Social Services Idaho Agency Advisory Board since 1976. In 1977, the advisory board approved a proposal giving stake Relief Society presidents, with the sanction of their stake presidents, opportunity to serve as volunteer staff members. Six have elected to do so. “It’s very practical,” says Sister McCowin. “We can serve as a liaison, at the direction of the stake president, between our stake Welfare Services committees and LDS Social Services. We can help identify and relay needs. Our first concern as Relief Society workers is the same—the welfare of Church members.”

Twenty-five sisters have been trained by the agency as caseworkers in unwed parent and adoptive programs in the Idaho Falls office, and each contributes many hours monthly. Other women serve as needs arise to provide foster homes for unwed mothers and to be special companions to help meet transportation, social, and spiritual needs—and sometimes just to listen and give comfort. Volunteer teachers, certified in Idaho, tutor girls so that they may complete their school work and meet educational requirements; others conduct group discussions with them. A few carefully selected sisters help with clerical work in the agency office. Another group serves in the Indian Student Placement Program.

The stake Relief Society presidencies, under agency supervision and at the request of local priesthood leaders, may train ward Relief Societies to help identify potential foster homes for unwed mothers, newborns awaiting adoption, and children who cannot stay in their natural homes. These homes are discussed with the bishop, who makes the decision on whether that family will be invited to serve. “I’ve always felt that the bishop can offer no higher compliment than to ask a family to provide foster care,” says Sister McCowin. “It means that he feels their house is in order, and that they’re capable of accepting and understanding a person whose life is frequently filled with turmoil and sorrow.”

Many of the volunteer women have had college experience in one of the helping fields, and the agency also provides an intensive orientation course, inservice training, and ongoing supervision. One of the volunteers explained, “If we’ve had some success in our work it’s because we are completely committed. We’re not afraid to put our arms around a girl or her parents. We’re not ashamed to shed tears with them. We don’t hesitate to fast and pray for them. We’ve felt our emotional and spiritual strength go out to them at this time of need. They come, giving us a chance to taste the joy of serving. What greater blessing could come to a Latter-day Saint woman!”

In Washington state, LDS Social Services has “approximately eighty volunteers, excluding foster parents, and I’d say that 90 percent are Relief Society sisters who are full-time homemakers,” says agency director Oliver L. McPherson. “Why? Because problems generally can’t wait until after working hours.”

He especially praised the Outreach Program through which volunteers contact schools, doctors, lawyers, and community agencies to let them know about the services the agency offers to unwed mothers. Spearheaded by Bernice McKenzie, the program has helped many girls—including nonmembers—who have been seeking an alternative to abortion. One of these nonmember girls and family members of two participants have since joined the Church.

“One unwed mother decided to drop out of the program, but her volunteer didn’t drop her. She kept visiting her, calling her, doing whatever she could for her, and even invited her to spend Thanksgiving with her family. As a result, and with the aid of an understanding bishop, a good plan was eventually made for the future of this mother and her child.”

Under Sister McKenzie’s direction, women volunteers also conduct a group meeting for unwed mothers every week, with four women teaching in rotation: spiritual living, prenatal care, self-esteem, and a group discussion of feelings and concerns. Another sister teaches a class for adoptive parents on parenting skills.

One professional therapist, praising a member of the stake Relief Society presidency who had worked with him in marriage counseling, said, “What she lacked in formal training she more than made up for with compassion, natural ability, and—quite frankly—her prayers. I saw more progress with this couple in a shorter time than I would have thought possible.”

About twenty-five sisters help with Indian Placement students in the agency, visiting the homes and families at least once a month under the supervision of the caseworker and providing reports that are sent back to priesthood leaders on the reservation. Others help with a day camp program for seven weeks during the summer for children between eight and fourteen who are experiencing social and emotional difficulties.

Brother Frazier of New Hampshire says enthusiastically, “I’m prejudiced in a way. I see the Relief Society as a vital resource in assisting the priesthood in helping people. They keep us going.” In his area, which covers New York, New England, and eastern Canada, the LDS Social Services unwed parent program is just beginning, “but with the assistance of Hartford Stake Relief Society President Sozel Duke, we’ve already helped many members and nonmembers.”

Brother Frazier’s testimony about the effectiveness of Relief Society presidents begins at home, where his wife, Carol, is president of the Nashua New Hampshire Ward Relief Society. He was out of town when a local hospital called his agency office about a mother who had just delivered a baby she wanted to release for adoption. “Carol talked to the hospital director, paid a personal visit to the young mother, and explained how the Church could help. As a result, the child was later released and placed in a Latter-day Saint home by the agency. She did everything in explaining the program that I would have done.”

Some needs don’t fit into an existing program, and some solutions have no precedent—but Relief Societies respond anyway. As Bernice McCowin, president of the Idaho Falls Idaho Ammon Stake Relief Society, worked on cleaning up after the Teton Dam flood during the summer of 1976 with Margaret Thomas, a member of her board, they kept wanting to share the stories of faith and inspiration they heard daily. “What a strength it might be to those elsewhere who face disaster,” said Sister Thomas. Ferron Sonderegger, president of the North Rexburg Stake, had already encouraged his members to keep a running account of their experiences. Then the women, not as an official Relief Society program, but working with other Relief Society women, asked the sisters in the flood zone and those who helped clean up to submit their stories.

They collected three hundred—enough for a thousand-page book—from sisters who were grateful that someone would take the time to organize them. The editors were pleased that many men and several youth also submitted accounts.

They enlisted Sister Thomas’s daughter Janet, an experienced journalist, to do the final cutting, condensing, and organizing. Mary Tingey also helped. Ricks College, which played such a dramatic role in the flood story, published the book.

The first 3,500 copies were sold in three weeks, and then a second printing of 5,000 melted away. That Day in June went into its third printing later that same year. As a non-profit venture, the first printing’s proceeds went to the Nauvoo Monument; then the editors donated the right to print the book and all additional proceeds to Ricks College.

A modest but once-in-a-lifetime chance of service was offered to the sisters in four Salt Lake stakes when the Church Administration Building at 47 East South Temple was remodeled and needed to be cleaned before the General Authorities moved back into it. Veleta S. Kerr, Salt Lake Park Stake Relief Society president, called it a blessing. Approximately twenty-four sisters had been requested; thirty-four came, including several sisters from the valley-wide deaf ward, some of them splitting shifts so that one could take care of both families while the other worked on the project.

“These clothes are pretty tattered,” observed one Relief Society worker while laying out baptismal suits in the Salem Oregon Stake.

Baptism is too sacred an occasion to be marred by worn, unsuitable clothing,” decided Bonnie M. Fisher, stake Relief Society president. Since then, Relief Society sisters have designed and made over two dozen one-piece suits for girls and boys ages eight to fourteen and for adult men. Women’s clothing is purchased from the Church. The Relief Society sisters also supply white socks for the men, white footlets for women and children, bathmats and big white towels—and two matrons to help patrons find the right sizes and keep the closets orderly. Donna R. Jorgensen, the counselor who supervises the sewing, seeks “the highest quality” from the dozen seamstresses. Their latest project is designing attractive baptismal clothing for women who need large sizes.

This stake also provides volunteers to staff a recently organized regional garment distribution center in Salem, Oregon, that serves two Salem stakes and one in Corvallis. All of the sisters who work in the center are set apart. One said she would give up a salaried position to work there. Another says she prays often to have the right spirit and to say the right things as she works there. Birdien B. Fryer noted that even little children are reverent in the peaceful surroundings of the garment center, for it reflects the image of the Church.

The Waipahu Hawaii Stake celebrated the United States Bicentennial summer by becoming, to their best information, the first stake to hold a regular summer Relief Society—and made believers out of those who were dubious in the beginning. With the challenge of developing their own course under priesthood direction, they doubled their homemaking days and experimented with cooking for mothers and children; they wrote letters (the children drew pictures) to send to missionaries, servicemen, and shut-ins; they made church kitchens more useful and pleasant; learned to cut hair; practiced recycling; and shared items that might otherwise be discarded, such as discount coupons.

The University Branch (Cambridge, Massachusetts) Relief Society tied its spring social to the cultural refinement lessons and had a gala evening program for the whole branch. Booths and tables depicting many countries focused attention on fine arts and food, areas that had been neglected because the Relief Society had met on Sabbath mornings. Music, a slide show, posters, handiwork, and souvenirs brought flavors from around the world into the cultural hall.

The Pacific Palisades Ward in California is putting together a film about the development of the whole woman through a lifetime of experiences. Writers, critics, musicians, and actresses are coming from the ward itself. The number of women involved exceeds the Relief Society’s average attendance.

The Chatsworth California Stake lies in an earthquake zone. Stake members were forcibly reminded of that by a disruptive quake in 1971. That was the impetus for the stake Relief Society to set up an emergency preparedness program that included the community. Working under the direction of Lila Orme, with high council advisors and with professional help, Relief Societies hold clinics in the ward meetinghouses to learn cardiac-pulmonary resuscitation, the Heimlich maneuver to save someone who is choking, and other emergency techniques. At the first clinic, ninety-five members and thirty-nine nonmembers attended.

Their plan is for each ward to have Resusci-Annes (elaborate dummies) to practice their first-aid techniques on; each maintains a well-stocked first-aid cupboard; and each now has a list of doctors, nurses, plumbers, and electricians. Courses have included storage hints: use cupboard doors with locks so that tremors won’t shake bottles to the floor, and store plenty of water since mains are easily broken up by earthquakes. Each ward is working out evacuation procedures. “We want everyone to know where to go in an emergency and what to do when they get there,” said stake Relief Society president Dolores Kennedy. “It’s our anti-panic plan.”

Anti-panic—a good statement of what the Relief Society is about. When Saints are in need, are afraid, are unsure of where to go for help, the Relief Society tries—and remarkably often succeeds—to meet those needs, calm that fear, and bring help to those who didn’t know where to turn. And as needs change, or former challenges are met, the resourceful sisters in the Relief Society throughout the world are finding new ways to help each other, their families, and their neighbors.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Glen Edwards

[illustration] In some areas, Relief Society volunteers provide much needed practical and spiritual help for unwed mothers.

[illustration] One Relief Society found they had the necessary technicians and actresses within their own numbers to produce a film about women.

[illustration] Resusci-Annes, elaborate mannequins used to teach life-saving techniques, regularly attend Relief Society in some California wards.