It Could Have Been Elves

by Richard M. Romney

Editorial Associate

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    But who was really helping Santa Claus?

    The workshop couldn’t have been busier if it belonged to Santa’s elves. From one end to the other, workers were unloading trucks, repairing sleds and furniture, sorting buttons for clothing, sewing, and even stacking skis.

    But these weren’t elves at work. They were young men and women from the Ogden Utah Weber Stake. And the workshop wasn’t at the North Pole. It was at the Deseret Industries welfare complex in Ogden, where the youth of the stake converged one Saturday to help the regular employees beat the Christmas rush.

    It was part of a month-long program to get the youth acquainted with the elderly and handicapped who form the main part of the labor force at the facility, which repairs and sells used furniture and clothing. It was also part of an effort to help those employees have a merry Christmas. In addition to the day spent working in the warehouse and production areas, the young people also presented a week’s worth of morning devotionals, put in another Saturday collecting reusable items, and just a few days before Christmas, sponsored a party for employees.

    “The whole idea was to get in the Christmas spirit,” Paula Watkins of the Uintah Second Ward said. “When you do something for other people, it makes you feel that you’re giving of yourself.”

    Frost was still in the air the morning the young men and women went door-to-door in their ward areas reminding people to donate items in good or reparable condition. Couches, lamps, dolls, toasters, an adding machine, desks, chairs, and other household wares soon bulged the sides of two large trucks, with more contributions still coming. One neighborhood florist donated a whole van full of Christmas decorations. One young man, enthused by the spirit of giving, pedaled up on his used bicycle and donated it to the drive. Half a dozen truckloads of usable items were amassed during the day.

    The following week the group began presenting morning devotionals. Each ward was assigned a particular day. Ward members presenting the program would meet with D.I. employees in the Ogden complex chapel for prayer, song, and a spiritual thought.

    The devotionals strengthened the staff, according to Niolee Petersen, a supervisor. “One of our goals is to bring the Spirit into the lives of those who work here, and the devotionals help a lot. These were special spirits, a lot of good kids. They have communicated very well with the handicapped workers.”

    The following Saturday, however, is when real friendships and close relationships began to grow.

    “We have about 30 handicapped workers under the direction of each supervisor, but they don’t all work on the same shift,” Sister Petersen explained. “Handicaps include age, physical impairments, and social and emotional maladjustments. This group of young people moved right in and helped everyone who was there on Saturday. It didn’t take much instruction before they were doing high-quality work.”

    It was indeed a sight to see a deacon working side-by-side on a commercial steam press with a woman who could have been his grandmother, but who joked and chatted with him like a schoolmate, or to watch a squadron of young men descend on a carpentry shop and learn under careful tutelage some fine points of cabinet making. Other work assignments included sorting clothing, polishing shoes, shredding rags to make rugs, pricing items for sale and affixing tags, ironing, and a variety of other tasks.

    “But,” as Shelley Johnson of the Uintah Second Ward stressed, “the most important thing isn’t what type of work we did. It’s that we were able to help other people.”

    About 325 young people participated in the project. They worked in two shifts, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Each person was given the name of an employee to become acquainted with. Some were then given tasks to perform on their own, others were assigned to work under the direction of an employee, and others worked with supervisors.

    “It was something different, something I’ll remember for a long time,” said Nan Brian of the Uintah First Ward. One of the supervisors said Mark Stockset of the Uintah Second Ward was a “real whiz on the steam machine.” Mark laughed. “I’ve never worked with one before,” he said, “but I’m kind of used to it now.”

    “I think this whole Deseret Industries idea is a good thing,” said Janean Dickson of the Uintah Second Ward. “It helps people take care of themselves. It teaches the value of work and makes you count your blessings.

    “I was especially interested to see the quality of merchandise they sell. The clothing isn’t worn out and run down; it’s nice. They have things for sale I’d be glad to wear.”

    “Next time I give things to D.I., I’ll be more aware of what they can use,” said Lisa Fowles of the South Weber Second Ward, “so I’ll make a more meaningful donation.”

    Over in the furniture repair shop, three young women from the stake removed nails from furniture being prepared for reupholstery.

    “Did you think you’d be doing this kind of work today?” they were asked. “No,” came the reply, “but it’s fun to be able to work firsthand with tools. I don’t usually get a chance to do that, and the exposure will help me.”

    “The people who work here have been really friendly to us,” David Jensen of the South Weber Second Ward said. “They seem like they’re glad to have us here.” Laurie Glissman, of the same ward, added, “It helps you when you work along with people; you come to understand them and the way they are. And it sure put me in the Christmas spirit to realize how fortunate I am. I think this welfare program is a good way to help those in need, because they can work and maintain their dignity.”

    “Those who have never had a chance to get close to the handicapped don’t understand them.” Gladys Huber, another supervisor, said. “It’s good to see these young folks come out and get to know their brothers and sisters.”

    “The workers were a bit wary about it at first,” Sister Petersen added. “But when the young people got here and started working with them, they were delighted. It’s been a perfect show of brotherly love.”

    The employees did in fact seem impressed by the youthful volunteers. “They learn pretty fast, and work hard,” Rell Smith said. “It’s good to have them here. We’d like more groups to come. Just let us know when.”

    Janean spent the day working with Lottie Dayton, putting size labels on clothing and hanging apparel on racks.

    “If I weren’t here today, I’d just be sitting home, or maybe riding my horse,” Janean said. “This is more important—it’s more important to serve the Lord than to serve yourself. That’s what Christmas is all about, helping others. We had to put priorities in order. Sure, it was hard to squeeze everything in, especially when we were trying to do Christmas shopping of our own. But we were excited to come down here, and she’s so sweet …”

    Her voice trailed off as she looked over at Sister Dayton, who was still hanging things on the rack as she softly hummed “Where Love Is.”

    As young and old labored amid clothing baling machines, steam tunnels (used to remove wrinkles from clothing), label racks, and sorting tables, the workshop did turn out some Christmas magic after all. By the end of each shift, there were no young and old, no handicapped and nonhandicapped, just friends, co-workers, and fellow Saints.

    The same spirit prevailed at a Christmas party ten days later.

    “We brought all the workers to the stake center,” Nan Brian of the Uintah First Ward explained. “When they got there, we gave each one an ornament with his name and the name of one of the kids in the stake who had worked with him printed on it. Then we did all we could to make them realize we are their friends.”

    That included a program of carols, stories, a visit from Santa Claus, and of course, the true story of the birth of Christ as recorded in the scriptures.

    As the workers were escorted home and the youth of the Weber Stake returned to their final holiday preparations, there was a warmth and a glow about both groups. Some had learned that others still cared, and some had learned that caring is the solid foundation of December’s glorious celebration.

    Photos by Richard M. Romney and Gregg Pack

    Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

    “Elves” from Ogden helped find room in collection trucks (below), used already known skills like sewing (left), and discovered new talents, like steam press operation (right)

    It seemed like a game of button-button for those who spent the day at the sorting table (below). Employee supervisors (center) were glad for extra help with the Christmas rush

    Reupholstering furniture (left) isn’t a usual Saturday activity for young women, but it was lots of fun. So was the party (below), when new-found friends shared the Christmas spirit again