In room 102 of the yellow-brick seminary building near a high school in Logan, Utah, 10 pairs of students recite the scripture of the week: “Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation …” (D&C 8:3).
Some stumble on the words. Others sign the words with their hands. After 15 minutes of diligent repetition, the grinning pairs walk hand-in-hand to record their progress on the bulletin board.
Friendly smiles welcome visitors in room 102 as they would in most any seminary classroom, but this class is far from ordinary. Half of these students are special-needs students with an array of mental and often physical challenges. The other half are Seminary Friends, high school students who volunteer to help their assigned partners settle into class, understand the scriptures, and make new friends.
It sounds like a sacrifice, spending an hour each day for an entire semester with an assigned special-needs seminary buddy. But these Seminary Friends will tell you that the blessings they receive far outweigh the efforts they put forth.
Just ask Stacy Allen, a senior and a cheerleader. When Stacy volunteered to be a Seminary Friend last fall, she had no idea how the experience would change her life.
“I had Amber Rindlesbacher as my partner,” Stacy says. “It was the first time I’d been around a special-needs student. It was an adjustment, but I just felt the Spirit really strong when I was around her. I learned so much.”
Stacy felt Amber’s influence outside of the classroom too. “I could tell there was a difference,” she says. “I could feel the Spirit more in my life. It helped me to be happier toward my family and friends.”
In fact, Stacy loved her first Seminary Friends experience so much she decided to do it again the next semester; but there was a problem: Stacy’s school schedule did not have room for another noncredit class.
At Logan High School, seminary is taught during the school day. Students attend seminary classes just as they would any other class, walking off campus to the Church-owned seminary building nearby. Students plan their schedules carefully to fill high school graduation requirements and still attend noncredit seminary classes. Stacy needed one more credited class to graduate. So Stacy signed up for an independent study course to fill the credit requirements for high school graduation and thought she had the problem resolved.
“Then they told me that since I wouldn’t have a full on-campus schedule I couldn’t be a cheerleader anymore,” Stacy says. Stacy had to choose between cheerleading and the special-needs seminary. “I didn’t want to let my squad down. But I really loved my seminary experience. I prayed, and I fasted for a solution.”
One night, while struggling with her decision, Stacy dreamed that she was in heaven and met Amber. In her dream Amber was whole and well. The two met as equals and as friends. When Stacy woke up, she confirmed her decision. She gave up cheerleading to serve in the Seminary Friends program one more time.
That semester, Stacy was paired with special-needs student Jimmy Carmen. He has an infectious smile and outgoing personality. Stacy says, “Jimmy makes me feel happy every day.”
Stacy misses cheerleading but says the trade-off has been worth the sacrifice. She says, “It’s been worth it, definitely.” She feels the Spirit there and believes she’s gained more than she’s given as a Seminary Friend. “The kids teach me to be more accepting,” she says.
As the day for the high school’s Sixties Dance approached, the Seminary Friends decided it would be fun to attend with their seminary partners. The group got together and made tie-dyed T-shirts, then organized van rides for the group of 24.
The evening was a success. The students jumped up and down together for the fast songs and held hands and danced in a big circle for the slow songs. Everyone had a good time.
For the special-needs students, the dance was a first, and their reactions were particularly enthusiastic. “My favorite thing was dancing with the boys,” says Jané Peart.
“It was my first date, but there were many, many girls,” signs Timothy Smith. “I like it because I’m a good dancer.”
“It was so fun to see Timothy smile and laugh and dance,” says Aundi Robison, one of the Seminary Friends. She is learning sign language to better communicate with her special-needs partner. “Timothy flexed his muscles for the girls. I’ve never seen him laugh so much.”
Like Stacy, Aundi says she’s gained more than she’s given through the Seminary Friends program. “It’s amazing how special these kids are. They’re so close to their Father in Heaven,” Aundi says. “They have really kind hearts. They’re very Christlike.”
And by associating with their special-needs friends, the Seminary Friends find their hearts growing more Christlike, too.
When Ashlee Broadbent and Carolyn Betz found out that two of their special-needs friends, Claudia and Liz, would be attending the school’s spring prom, they wanted to help. They helped Claudia and Liz design their own prom dresses, which were custom-made by a friend. Then they organized a group of 20 friends and rented a bus to travel to the dance together. The night of the prom, Carolyn’s sister gave Claudia and Liz a full-blown makeover, doing their hair, nails, and make-up. Ashlee took photos and waved good-bye as Carolyn, Claudia, and Liz left for dinner and the dance with the rest of the group. At age 15, Ashlee wasn’t yet old enough to date.
“We wanted to give them an extra special time. It started out as a simple project,” Carolyn says. “We came away with two new friends.”