The fire took not only the house but eight-year-old Michaela’s future. All of the family escaped with their lives, but she was terribly burned. As she lay in a Guatemalan hospital during the months that followed, her physical wounds slowly healed, but the burns left a thick, purple scar that swelled until it covered her face from temple to collarbone and severely restricted the ways she could move her head.
And so she lived—seven years without hope of a life that could ever be normal.
Then she heard of the “praying doctor,” a man who once a year traveled from his home in Utah to Guatemala to help injured and disabled children. He was a surgeon who performed feats of reconstruction, never charged for the work, and always prayed with the children before he operated. And when Dr. Blayne Hirsche, of Provo, Utah, learned of Michaela’s problem, he agreed to take her as a patient—one of more than 50 he would see during his weeklong stay in Chiquimula.
On a typical day in Guatemala, Dr. Hirsche and his staff begin operating at seven in the morning and often work until nine or ten at night. They schedule 10 surgeries each day but often find a way to squeeze in 11 or 12. They represent the only hope for a normal life for most of these children. Cleft lips and palates are repaired, club feet straightened, fused fingers separated, and tumors removed. In Michaela’s case, Dr. Hirsche removed the scarred tissue and grafted new skin on her face to take its place. Thanks to his work, Michaela will have an opportunity to live a life without disfigurement or severe handicap.
The gospel of Jesus Christ motivates both individual members and Latter-day Saints as a body to reach out in humanitarian service to the needy and disadvantaged of the world. The remarkable work Dr. Hirsche and his staff perform is one of many examples of individual effort. Yet members who have neither his specialized skills nor his opportunities know that their donations of money, time, and useful items can also be of inestimable value in touching lives. Through their contributions, the Church has been able to bless the lives of people from Armenia to Zimbabwe, without regard to race or religion. On a large scale, with disaster relief to thousands, or on a small one, with educational and assistance programs to aid individuals, the Church as an institution has been heeding the Savior’s call to minister and serve. Public recognition is not the objective. Even so, a true picture of Latter-day Saint welfare service today must include both significant individual and institutional efforts that combine seemingly small contributions for major impact.
When individual members respond to feelings of compassion, they often find their efforts multiplied as those they serve touch the lives of others. That has been the case with Dorcas Commey, a 65-year-old teacher from Odoben, Ghana.
The average income of families who live in the village of Odoben, where she was born, is roughly $10 a month. This will buy a little fuel and salt and maybe some fish. Most families can’t provide schooling for their children, and it is nearly impossible for them to afford medical care. Families live in concrete-walled or mud-walled “compound houses” of five or six rooms each—grandparents, children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren inhabiting the same dwelling, a room to each family.
Unlike many who live and die in their compound house, Sister Commey rose to become an influential educator and an elected representative from the area, serving in the Ghanaian parliament and in the district assembly. More than the crowded conditions and the poverty, the fate of the young women of Odoben troubled Sister Commey. All too often, girls would become pregnant in their midteens and find themselves living in a compound house as wives or single mothers with no skills, money, or education. In an area where it is an economic necessity for women to help provide for their families, how would they be able to contribute? How could they raise themselves from poverty? What Sister Commey saw for these young women was a cycle that repeated itself every generation, and with each new generation came more despair, more desperation, more poverty.
In 1995 she decided she must do something for the young women of her village. What they needed, she decided, was education surely, but in addition they needed a practical skill that could break the cycle of poverty.
Sister Commey started a vocational school in her home. She invited young women between the ages of 16 and 20 to attend classes where they would not only learn to read and write but would also learn practical vocational skills such as cooking, dressmaking, hairdressing, and catering. After two years of training, the young women would receive a certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma but oriented toward vocational skills. The certificate and training help these young women either find employment or start their own small businesses.
Today, 20 girls from the village attend this vocational school. Sister Commey pays the teachers from her own resources and offers housing accommodations for the girls who have no place to live. She tries to inspire them with the confidence to break away from the poverty of generations, to become self-reliant.
Several graduates have now established their own businesses and others have found employment in someone else’s enterprise. Sister Commey judges her school’s success, however, not only by those who attend classes today but also by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives that may be better in future generations because these young women were able to cast off burdens of illiteracy, hunger, and despair.
Like Sister Commey, anyone can experience the joy from responding to the feeling that someone ought to do something. You could ask RoseAnn Gunther of American Fork, Utah, a former Young Women president who just wanted the young women under her direction to experience the joy of serving others. They made and donated quilts, afghans, puppets, and first aid kits to the Church humanitarian relief program. Eventually priesthood brethren and sisters of the Relief Society joined in, and a wide variety of items, tens of thousands of them, were donated.
Or you could ask retiree Charles Cooley of Cedar City, Utah, who turned his talent for woodworking to making toys for the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Again, others joined in, a nonprofit organization was formed, and thousands of toys have been distributed. The gratitude of the hospital administrator who accepted the first box of toys Brother Cooley and his wife delivered “was the best payday of our lives,” the retiree says.
Whether combating the ravages of war, famine, flood, or disease, the Church has a record of offering food, clothing, and educational and medical supplies to the needy in nations throughout the world. Over the past decade in particular, those contributions have steadily grown in scope and reach.
Surprisingly, many of the fruits of this humanitarian work are the harvest of Church-sponsored Deseret Industries thrift stores. The operation, begun in 1938 in Salt Lake City, uses donations of clothing and household items from members of the Church and community to provide work and training to many who find it difficult to find or keep a job. While all donations to Deseret Industries are vital to its success, the amount of donated clothing often exceeds the amount that can be sold in its stores. Before 1991, this clothing surplus was sold to rag merchants or to dealers who resold the clothing overseas to people who liked American fashions.
But in 1991 the Church’s General Welfare Committee made a decision that would change the face of Deseret Industries forever: all surplus clothing was to be shipped to a central location and from there distributed to those in need the world over without cost.
Thus was born an endeavor that ultimately would be called the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center.1 It initially focused on distributing clothing, but as donations of medical equipment, educational supplies, and textbooks increased, the center expanded its mission to distribute those items as well.
Today the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center functions as a part of Deseret Industries. The excess clothing and other items dropped off at the 47 Deseret Industries stores in the seven westernmost United States are sent to the center in Salt Lake City for sorting, and donations are often shipped from other areas as well. Every day, workers at the center sort through more than 100,000 items of clothing in preparation for shipment. Winter items may end up in Belarus or Appalachia; summer clothing may go to Jamaica or Uganda. In 1998 the center redistributed more than 16 million items of clothing to those in need around the world, along with more than a million pounds of educational and medical items such as textbooks, hospital beds, and x-ray machines.
As members of the Church and other service-minded individuals began to hear about the humanitarian work done by the Church, many expressed interest in assisting. Some have helped develop plans or patterns for cloth and wood toys, hospital nightshirts, receiving blankets, wall hangings, and leper bandages that people could make to benefit others. During 1998 more than 100,000 of these items were distributed by the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center to more than 100 countries. (For information on ordering guidelines for making some of these items, see the accompanying interview with Harold C. Brown, managing director of Welfare Services.)
The clothing and other items sent by the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center bless hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Following a visit to a prison in Uganda, Isaac C. Ferguson, former director of the Church’s Humanitarian Service Division of Welfare Services, recorded in his journal what he had seen: “Eighteen hundred men, most of them dressed in literal rags, walking about an overused and worn compound. Little to eat, and little or no meaningful activity.” Not long afterward, the center shipped to this prison not only the desperately needed clothing but also soap for cleansing bodies and disinfecting wounds.
While the reach of the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center extends worldwide, members of the Church in some international areas have developed their own smaller versions of the center. Local Church units in Peru and Brazil have central locations where donated clothing is stored, sorted, and ultimately redistributed to the needy. While these centers receive clothing from the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City, they also collect clothing from local members. Bishops and branch presidents can then offer this clothing to those in need in their wards and branches, and also, at their discretion, to those who are not Latter-day Saints.
Church assistance to the suffering and needy throughout the world includes much more than distributing clothing, however. During the past year, the Church has sponsored literacy efforts in Bangladesh, a rehabilitation training facility for amputees in Haiti, and health fairs designed to teach principles of nutrition and hygiene in countries as diverse as Guatemala, Zimbabwe, and Armenia. In addition, during the past year the Church distributed 7 million pounds of food, 450,000 pounds of educational materials, and 700,000 pounds of medical supplies and equipment to more than 100 countries around the world.
Whether shipping powdered milk to the needy in Tajikistan or emergency supplies to tornado victims in Alabama, the Church is constantly involved in many quiet acts of charitable giving. When a devastating tidal wave hit Papua New Guinea, for example, the Church contributed food and also money to provide for emergency relief. When an earthquake hit Afghanistan, the Church sent blankets to help keep away the chill of the cold mountain air.
When Hurricane Mitch left tens of thousands homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua, the Church was one of the first to provide needed food, clothing, and medical supplies.
In addition, the Church helps other trusted nonprofit agencies that dedicate themselves to relieving suffering around the world—agencies as diverse as the American Red Cross, African Christian Relief, B’nai Brith, CARE, Catholic Community Services, the Children’s Hunger Fund, Mercy Corps International, and the Salvation Army. Recently the Church established its own organization, Latter-day Saint Charities, to channel and administer some gifts and donations where such a legal entity is required.
A fundamental principle helps guide Church efforts: where feasible, the assistance given should help others become more self-reliant. During 1998, for example, representatives of the Church taught reading skills and English in areas such as Laos, Mongolia, and Indonesia. In China, the Church has sponsored training in resuscitation techniques for doctors who treat infants born with respiratory problems. In Ghana, training in computer hardware and software operation is provided to those interested in learning technical skills. In Guatemala, the Church has helped more than 1,000 people start their own small businesses—from making tortillas to raising chickens to small engine repair—to help sustain them and their families for the rest of their lives.2
The humanitarian service of the Church is not limited to sending material assistance throughout the world, however. One of its greatest assets in bringing hope and relief is the work of those who dedicate their time as humanitarian service missionaries and volunteers. A couple who serve in this capacity might teach English in Ukraine, distribute clothing to the poor in Louisiana, teach basketball to the youth of India, or mentor people looking for employment in the Philippines. In addition to their primary tasks, couples are encouraged to look with a sensitive eye and compassionate heart at local needs and use the experiences and knowledge they have accumulated over the years to bless the lives of those they encounter.
As employment service missionaries in the Philippines, Henry and Janice Peacock, of Lindon, Utah, struggled to find ways to assist the people of the island of Samar. “There was no industry, no trade, no jobs,” writes Sister Peacock. The people’s diet consisted almost completely of rice: poor fishing practices had damaged surrounding reefs, and few fish could be found. With little capacity for refrigeration, meat could not be stored easily, and “the lack of protein had left many of the children with severe learning disabilities.”
Sister Peacock had worked earlier in life as a sales clerk and hair stylist, and these jobs had provided some income and experience in business. But she felt inadequate to address the challenges these Filipinos were facing. What could she—a housewife and mother—do to help these wonderful people who were so burdened with heavy worries and griefs?
Then she remembered from her childhood a neighbor who had an orchard of fruit trees; in between the rows of cherries and apples, he had raised rabbits—hundreds of them. They bred quickly and could provide an excellent source of protein. In fact, as a young girl, she had raised rabbits herself. Why couldn’t the people of Samar do the same? Raising rabbits would not only help individuals and families, it could also provide a business opportunity for many who could not find employment.
Immediately, Brother and Sister Peacock went to work on the idea. “Meetings were held, people were taught and motivated, information was gathered and published, bureaucracies were approached and influenced,” Sister Peacock writes. Things began to change. The missionaries not only introduced rabbits to the people of Samar but encouraged vegetable farming as well. “Vegetables appeared on the tables where once only rice was present. People were nourished and budgets were supplemented. Sales of vegetables, meats, and hides started,” Sister Peacock recalls. A new way was open to help improve the health of children and help families find employment.
When the time finally came for the Peacocks to leave their mission, they estimated that more than 700 families were raising rabbits and that more than 1,000 were growing vegetables. The Peacocks no longer wondered how people such as they could possibly contribute in a place like the Philippines.
Sometimes donations through the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City touch lives half a world away in a manner that the original donor might never have foreseen.
In the mountainous region of Mongolia, missionaries John and Nancy Hopkins watched a frail woman with a burden on her back struggle up the road to the Khanuul Social Center. As she approached, Brother and Sister Hopkins realized that the woman was carrying a child. She had come to seek help for her eight-year-old son, crippled since birth. The boy had never been to school, and his mother had to carry him on her back whenever he wanted to go somewhere. It was clear that soon he would be too heavy for her to carry.
The Hopkins wanted to help the woman and her son but did not know how.
Then a shipment of medical supplies arrived from Salt Lake City. As they carefully unloaded each item in the large container, they came to a beautifully built crate. To their delight, inside it was a new child-sized wheelchair.
A week later, their hearts filled with gratitude as a frail mother gently placed her son in his new chair. Sister Hopkins watched as the boy explored the chair. “All of a sudden he realized if he moved the wheels with his hands, he could propel himself!” she said. “A big grin broke out on his face as the full impact of the discovery began to dawn upon him. He would no longer have to depend on anyone to move him from place to place. He had, for the first time in his life, become free to move on his own.”
Sister Hopkins wrote, “Oh, how I wish that whoever donated that wheelchair could see the happiness their generosity brings.” The chair meant so many possibilities for the boy and his mother. Now he would be able to attend school, and his mother would no longer have to struggle under the growing burden of his weight.
The work of thousands of Latter-day Saints who give of their time and resources to help others, both as individuals and as contributors in the Church, is a literal manifestation of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s counsel: “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”3
President Brigham Young echoed this sentiment when he said: “We are not here isolated and alone, differently formed and composed of different material from the rest of the human race. We belong to and are part of this family, consequently we are under obligations one to another, and the Latter-day Saints … are under obligations to their brethren and sisters scattered in the nations who, through indigent circumstances, are unable to gather to themselves … the comforts of life.”4
When the Savior walked the earth, He sought ways to offer comfort and relief to those who suffered and were in need. One way we can follow His example today is to give of ourselves to help those who suffer both in our neighborhoods and around the world. “Remember the poor,” the Lord has reminded in the latter days. “And inasmuch as ye impart … unto the poor, ye will do it unto me” (D&C 42:30–31).