When President Spencer W. Kimball heard the report, he nearly wept. An elderly woman, the widow of a faithful stake president, had been placed in a rest home, reportedly abandoned by her children.
“Brethren,” President Kimball told the Welfare Services staff members who brought the matter to his attention, “please call the family and her priesthood leaders, and help this sister today. I will not be able to sleep tonight unless I know that this dear sister has been helped.” Contact with family and Church leaders was made that day; the situation was resolved.
This sister’s special need received personal attention from the President of the Church, but her situation—and many others like it—is not the exclusive concern of the General Authorities. In a rapidly growing Church of over four million members, it is obvious that the President cannot give personal attention to each problem. It is the order of the Church that families, bishops and home teachers, Relief Society presidents and visiting teachers, quorums, and ward welfare services specialists should act to bless the lives of members with special needs. This is the Lord’s way.
Who are the members with special needs? They are those temporarily or permanently unable to participate in the regular programs of the Church or to make use of the regular materials of the Church. They include, for example:
—Handicapped persons who are physically disabled or retarded;
—Chronically ill persons with such diseases as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, or cancer;
—Dependent elderly persons, whether they live alone, with family members, or in institutions;
—Institutionalized persons who live in rest homes, state residential schools, prisons, or hospitals;
—Members addicted to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or deviancy;
—Victims of spouse or child abuse, and abusing adults.
Although the problems are not new, time and circumstance have combined to bring new stresses, especially upon people in modern urban settings—where many Latter-day Saints now live.
A hundred years ago, most Latter-day Saints lived in rural settlements. Usually, everyone in town knew everyone else. A typical home could have included not only close family members, but an elderly grandmother, a nephew, a widowed aunt, or other members of the extended family.
Life in such rural settings was relatively simple, and relationships were secure. With limited transportation—and without radio, television, phonographs, movies, and other diversions—entertainment was largely centered in the home and in Church meetinghouses. Social problems were fewer than today, and were usually common knowledge.
People were close to both the problems and the solutions. They could provide general supervision and work for the retarded boy. The family of the elderly sister could make room for her in their home. And more than likely the rebellious teenager would move in with Uncle Henry a few blocks away until things settled down.
Today life is more complex. People change residences more often. Social institutions are larger and more impersonal. Family members may live far away. Transportation is more readily available, and entertainment tends to come from outside the home and the ward. Opportunities are more numerous, but so are potential problems.
In our less securely rooted society, surrounded by transient neighbors with varying values and life styles, it is not unusual for a person to feel a terrible loneliness in the midst of millions of people. Today, a family may have a retarded child without many neighbors being aware of the situation. Today, an elderly sister may find herself in a rest home, apparently forgotten by all. Today, the couple with a rebellious teenager may face their difficult challenges, feeling very much alone. Today’s urban dwellers face a variety of social problems, even in their own living rooms via television.
But for most Latter-day Saints, the spirit of the closely knit community of former years lives on in the closely knit ward or branch. Church members without an immediate family may have close ties with their ward “family.” In addition, today’s active Latter-day Saint has more helpful resources than his counterpart of a hundred years ago.
Of course, the first responsibility is still that of the family:
“Family members should make every effort to care for an individual with special needs within the family environment,” says the Welfare Services Handbook (pilot ed., 1978, p. 59). “After the individual and family have done all they can, the Church stands ready to help.”
What Church resources can help individuals and families meet the needs of members with special problems?
The keystone is the ward welfare services committee, which meets regularly. This group, really an expanded priesthood executive committee, consists of the bishopric, Relief Society presidency, elders quorum president, seventies group leader, high priests group leader, executive secretary, and Young Men’s president.
Given a particular set of “needs,” and under the direction of the bishop, the committee prayerfully looks for “resources.” If quorum and ward resources are unable to provide a solution to the problem, stake, region, and even general Church or community resources are tapped. With Church and possibly community resources, a welfare services committee should be well prepared to deal with the special needs of all members.
Often, a welfare services committee is able to help without a great deal of effort. Other cases may require considerable involvement of both Church and community resources. In any case, members of a “ward family” are drawn closer together as they solve problems and emulate the admonition of the Savior to “remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (D&C 52:40)
Here are some examples of how ward welfare services committee members work to bless the lives of members with special needs:
—A mother stopped attending church after giving birth to a son with Down’s Syndrome (“mongolism”). She confided to a friend that she felt the child’s handicap was her punishment for premarital indiscretions.
The woman’s bishop met with her and her husband to help them understand that there is no doctrinal basis for believing their child’s handicap was a punishment. Then, with help from the stake welfare services committee, he contacted two couples from other wards who had children with similar handicaps. Together with the bishop, the three couples met to discuss mutual concerns, options, and community resources. Bolstered by loving concern and shared experiences, the couple accepted their child and began taking him to church. Eventually, the mother was called to be a teacher in the stake special Primary for retarded children, using special Church curriculum materials designed for handicapped children.
Now she and her husband stand ready as stake welfare services specialists to provide “emotional first aid” to other couples in the stake who may have a baby with serious birth defects.
—An elderly woman lived in a rest home many miles from her home ward. Her family visited her, but she had no other contact with the Church.
The bishop of the ward she resided in called the woman’s home bishop and arranged for her membership records to be transferred. Then the ward leaders set out to let her know that she was not alone. The elders quorum president assigned mature home teachers who volunteered to drive her to Sunday meetings. The Relief Society president urged newly assigned visiting teachers to take the elderly sister to Relief Society. Then, feeling a member of the “family,” she was called to send birthday cards from the bishopric to all elderly ward members.
—In another area, the ward welfare services committee was called upon to assist a family whose problem was a rebellious teenage son.
By the time he was sixteen, the boy and his parents had reached a point in their relationship where his continued presence at home hurt the entire family.
The home teachers and the quorum leadership were unsuccessful in their efforts to assist the rebellious boy and his family, and the elders quorum president raised the problem in the welfare services committee meeting. After counseling personally with the boy and his parents, and after determining that no extended family resource was available, the bishop referred the matter to LDS Social Services through whom foster care placement for the boy and professional counseling for the parents was arranged as a supplement to the bishop’s own counsel to the family. The tense family relationship was eased while a more lasting and better solution was sought.
Regardless of the involvement of the ward welfare services committee, the attitude of ward members toward those with special needs is very important. It can make all the difference. For example, a deaf boy, a member of the Aaronic Priesthood, lived in a ward in New Jersey. Many young persons in the ward followed the example of the quorum adviser; they learned sign language and included the boy in their activities. When the adviser began to interpret Church meetings into sign language, other deaf persons from throughout the stake attended the ward and received the gospel teachings.
But often it is difficult for members with special needs to feel accepted in their ward. Usually this is because other members don’t know how to cope with serious physical or mental handicaps in others. But when an effort is made to understand and alleviate the problems, the way is opened for better relationships within the ward “family.”
For example, one ward showed little acceptance of a deaf girl with cerebral palsy and poor vision. The girl, who has considerable involuntary movement, spent years “living in a vacuum” (in her mother’s words), able to communicate only bodily needs. Finally a worker at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City taught the girl some sign language. “Then she became a person to reason and communicate with,” her mother says. Her mother also learned sign language.
But the girl grew up lonely. Only once—after the mother asked the bishop to help her daughter feel accepted—did the Young Adults invite her to participate in an activity. Ward members seemed to avoid her, not knowing how to act. She sometimes communicated to her mother that she wished she were dead. Eventually, she began to attend a ward for the deaf and made some progress.
When her situation finally came to the attention of the welfare services committee, arrangements were made to have the girl spend a summer at a school in California that specializes in programs for the deaf. Tests showed the girl to have normal intelligence, although she had been labeled as retarded all her life. A tutor worked with her in an intensive program to upgrade her ability to communicate, while a physical therapy class helped with control of involuntary movements.
For three months the girl resided in the home of an active young deaf Latter-day Saint couple, where there were little children to love and where easy communication and complete acceptance helped her to blossom. The Young Adults at the new local ward for the deaf befriended her and provided the vital social companionship for which she had yearned. The deaf bishop and his wife patiently, kindly taught her simple gospel truths which had eluded her for twenty years. At the end of the summer the girl came home more poised, more confident, better able to communicate, stronger in her faith.
Much remains yet to be done before this girl’s special needs are fully met. She cannot yet live independently, but she has made a start in that direction, building on the foundation laid by a compassionate welfare services committee.
In a complex modern world, Latter-day Saints need not feel isolated or alone or without recourse. Within our wards and stakes we have “family members” with the experience and skills needed to help those of us with special need to help ourselves.
“Remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple” (D&C 52:40).
A remarkable number and variety of materials and services is available to members with special needs and to priesthood leaders and others working with them.
—The 1979–80 Salt Lake Distribution Center Publications Catalog, pages 12–15, lists available materials for the handicapped. Other materials for members with special needs are listed on pages 79–81.
—The April 1976 Ensign, pages 13–30, features several articles on members with handicaps.
—The in-service packet Teaching the Handicapped (PBIC0187) is a valuable tool for leaders, teachers, and family members of persons with handicaps.
—The Welfare Services Handbook for pilot areas, part 6, deals with services for members with special needs.
—A list of other materials and services for use with members with special needs is available on request from the Coordinating Committee for Special Member Needs, 7th floor, Church Office Building, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. Telephone (801) 531-3028.
—A statement from President Spencer W. Kimball was recorded and distributed on a soundsheet for participants at the White House Conference on the Handicapped in Washington, D.C., in May 1975. The statement is available at the Salt Lake Distribution Center (PXWE0235) for fifty cents.
Some persons with exceptional challenges are successful despite handicaps that might seem disabling to others. James Womack, a stake patriarch in Winnfield, Louisiana, is one of those. In 1942, at age nineteen, not yet a member of the Church, he was injured in World War II action. He lost his hands and much of his vision.
“I was mad at God—I couldn’t figure out, why me?” Brother Womack relates. But United States government resources—hospitals and rehabilitation centers—helped him develop skills and self-esteem, and his wife, Geraldine, gave him continual moral support.
Six years later, after trying several professions, he attended college and law school, graduating fourth in his class. He established a private law practice in Winnfield and became a successful attorney.
In 1965 he toured Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and less than a year later was baptized. Within several years he had served as a counselor to the stake and mission presidents, and he was called as stake patriarch.
The words he uses in giving patriarchal blessings differ from those of other patriarchs. Instead of saying, “I place my hands on your head,” he says, “I place my arms on your head.” To give blessings, he removes his “hook” right arm and places his upper arms on the head of the person he blesses.
Brother Womack says his lack of eyesight and hands does not interfere with inspiration he receives in giving blessings. When he first received the calling, he prayed that the impressions would be strong on his mind—and “they were so strong that I had to go back in a few weeks and pray that the Holy Ghost would lift them, because I couldn’t forget them. The scenes, the thoughts, the ideas of those blessings I gave stayed stamped on my mind as if I had witnessed them.”
His handicaps don’t slow him down. He has been a magazine representative, a Scout leader, and a priesthood quorum teacher, and has worked on the welfare farm and sold Church books. In his profession, he has outgrown one law office and moved into a larger one. He has tried many cases in court. And he has run for city judge.
According to Brother Womack, we are all “blessed” with handicaps. “There are no perfect individuals. … We all have some disadvantages. Now if you do not want your life to be spoiled by your disadvantages, you will look at the advantages that you have, and make benefit of those.
“It’s like a glass of water—it’s half full or half empty. You can regret and bemoan the fact that you have only half a glass of water or you can be extremely pleased by the fact that you are blessed with as much as half a glass of water.”