'Sweet Is the Work'

And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.-- 3 Ne. 17:24.

"I think we're still seeing angels coming down and administering to the Lord's little ones," Elder Ronald J. Hammond, an Area Authority Seventy, told the Church News, in speaking of the Utah North Area Special Needs Mutuals and Primaries.The challenging part in this case, he said, is differentiating between the angels. Are they the givers or the receivers?

"Each of them thinks the other is the angel," Elder Hammond said, in speaking of the students, teachers and leaders of the 12 Special Needs Mutuals and the seven Special Needs Primaries throughout the Salt Lake Valley and in Davis County, north of Salt Lake City. While numbers constantly fluctuate, some 800 people with disabilities of various kinds are served in the Special Needs Mutuals, and dozens in the Special Needs Primaries. And personalities are as diverse as age. At any one event, usually held weekly, the youngest might be 6 and the oldest 60 or more.

"Who cares if she's a 40-year-old Beehive? We have 65-year-old Eagle Scouts," Elder Hammond added, also speaking of the Boy Scout troops for Special Needs individuals. And, he continued, the Scouts earn their awards. "It's not a 'gimme.' They work at it and go on outings."

Expressing his strong feelings for the Special Needs programs, Elder Hammond spoke with admiration for all those involved in the Utah North Area, including the some 394 adults serving as Special Needs teachers and leaders, and the 279 youth workers serving as counselors to Special Needs individuals. "The opportunities they provide are as variety filled as the needs of those they serve. They generally don't have special handbooks. They simply use what they have in the way of Young Men and Young Women manuals and make them adapt to fit the needs of the people.

"They would be the last to sing their own praises, and they don't expect it from anybody else," the Area Authority Seventy continued. "The hymn that comes to mind is 'Sweet Is the Work.'"

So sweet, he added, that host stakes for the Special Needs Mutuals and Primaries in a particular region, such as Davis County, are reticent to pass the responsibility to the next host stake. And leaders and teachers are saddened to be released. "Some have spent upwards of three decades in the program," Elder Hammond explained.

Some of the programs in Utah North were begun in the 1960s, so there are people like Louise Stout of the Oak Hills Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake, who served in a Special Needs Primary for 32 years. Her daughter, LaVon Stout Johnson, served for more than 20 years as a chorister for a Special Needs Primary.

And that's just to name a few. Elder Hammond explained that if you combine the years of service for the current leaders, teachers and youth counselors (adults serve an average of five years, the youth about one), you get more than 2,600 years of service. "It would be like since the time Lehi walked out of Jerusalem with his family," he added.

"That's a source of ongoing tenderness," Elder Hammond explained, especially for the youth. "We are getting a whole new generation of young men and young women who will assume leadership in communities and in Church who have that softening experience behind them. They don't see the differences between people now like they did before they joined the Special Needs program."

This, he said, happens because of "experiential binding. The more experiences they have with these people, the more they bond."

A bond so tight that absenteeism is almost non-existent for leaders, teachers and counselors, he added. "These Special Needs people draw them."

Barbra Brasher agrees. A Special Needs Mutual leader in the Salt Lake Brighton area, she helps oversee a mutual covering 14 stakes. "It is the greatest calling I've ever had. It's just a wonderful experience, a spiritual experience," she said during a Church News interview. She also described the joy the Special Needs individuals show in seeing each other every week. "Their spirits are connected with one another."

Sister Brasher described the poignant story of a young woman who was frightened to go into the water for baptisms for the dead at the Jordan River Temple. "She was just shaking, but she did want to do baptisms. We told her it would be OK, the brethren would be there to protect her. Then after she had done 12 baptisms, she begged to continue."

She also explained how, once a month, her Special Needs Mutual participates in a sacrament meeting in one of the stakes each month. "Our sacrament meetings are just marvelous. It's a highlight. It's just a spiritual experience."

A "marvelous experience" is just one way to describe Special Needs Mutuals and Primaries. By participating in road shows, dances, musicals, Boy Scout troops, campouts and other activities, these individuals not only learn and grow themselves, but they also teach those around them. For example, during a musical performed by the North Davis Special Needs Mutual, there were problems with the sound and light system. One of the leaders recalled: "As I bowed my head and was just finishing my prayer asking for help with these problems, I heard sweet voices on the stage singing, 'I Am a Child of God.' At that instant, the lights and sound began working as they needed to."

There is also the heartwarming account from the Murray Utah Special Needs Primary for the hearing impaired. One little boy, James, was watching his teacher sign the story of when Jesus comes again and calls the little children to Him. The boy asked, in sign language, "Teacher, is Jesus deaf?"

Upon finding out that Jesus is not deaf, James began to cry. "How will He understand me when He comes again?"

The teacher prayed for wisdom and replied, "Sweetheart, Jesus understands all languages, especially sign language."

James' face lit up.

These kinds of teaching moments, Elder Hammond said, are like casting "bread upon the water. It will come back a hundred- and a thousandfold."

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