Welfare Square: the LDS Church helps people help themselves

Story and slideshow by CECELIA FENNELL

Take a tour of Welfare Square.

Upon entering the visitor’s center, guests were kindly ushered into a theater-like room by a missionary. When everyone was seated, the woman introduced herself as a volunteer worker for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and started a 15-minute video on the history of Welfare Square. The tour began.

Operated by the LDS church, Welfare Square, located at 780 West and 800 South, serves people all over the world as well as locally. It is composed of seven entities: a granary, milk processing operation, bakery, cannery, storehouse, thrift store and an employment center. According to its website, each is designed to help people help themselves through the service and work organized here.

According to the short film, Welfare Square began during the Great Depression and led to the establishment of the church’s welfare program in Salt Lake City. The idea was to build on a tradition of compassion and charity as shown by Jesus Christ whom members of the LDS church and other Christian faiths look to as their savior and redeemer. Here, the church works to follow the example of Christ by providing care for the poor and helping them to become self-reliant.

Rachel Matautia, 22, from Australia, and her companion, Karly Nelson, 22, of California, are missionaries for the LDS church. The women conduct tours at Welfare Square and answer questions visitors may have about the church or its welfare program.

Following the video, they led visitors to the Bishops’ Storehouse. Members of the church as well as nonmembers come here to fill food and clothing orders for people in need.

“All the food here is grown and canned by the church. The products even have their own Deseret labels,” Matautia said.

Members of the church who are in need of food speak with their bishop, who is the presiding leader in a designated area. The bishop then takes these orders to the bishops’ storehouse and fills the orders with the help of other member volunteers. Recipients of food and services are asked to donate some time volunteering to help others in need.

“For everyone that comes in and has orders filled, we ask that they do four to five hours of service here,” said Jim Goodrich, manager of Welfare Square. “It’s not required, but it helps them to build their independence. People who receive goods for free tend to become dependent and the goal is to help people help themselves,” he said.

For people who don’t have bishops and aren’t members of the church, orders are filled for them as well. Offering service in return is suggested, but optional.

“We have over 30 transients come in each day. One thing many people don’t know is that we will serve everyone in need — no matter their background,” Goodrich said.

Funds to assist with maintenance costs come from “fast offerings” by church members. On the first Sunday of every month, church members skip meals and donate what they would have spent on those meals to the church. One hundred percent of fast offerings go toward helping the poor and needy. Members are not required to donate, though most do.

Many of the individuals receiving help through the bishop’s storehouse are unemployed. The LDS church offers help and work options to such individuals through its employment center.

“People who are in need of work or better work can come here to find employment,” Matautia said. “Employees and volunteers work with people to help them prepare for interviews, write better resumes and assist with needed educational training,” she said.

People in need of jobs can sign up for free classes that provide help with training for specific jobs, as well as English classes to help with the language barrier.

Next, visitors were led to a tall, white, grain elevator. The guides asked the tour group how long they estimated the granary building took to build.

“The granary is 178 feet tall and was built in just eight days because it had to be built through a continuous pouring of cement,” said Karly Nelson, the other tour guide.

The Granary stores wheat grown by the church. It is used in the bakery and to create emergency food supply packs called Atmit. The porridge-like substance, the guides explained, originated in Ethiopia; the LDS church perfected the powder and made it available in bulk. The church has served thousands of malnourished people in Ethiopia as well as other developing countries.

Milk and dairy products are also distributed and processed by the church. Cows owned by the church in Elberta, south of Utah Lake, produce the milk.

“The milk and cheese made at the Milk Processing Center is so fresh, the process of the milk going from the cows to Welfare Square is so quick that the milk hardly touches air,” Matautia said.

Before leaving the creamery, visitors sampled chocolate milk, cheese and bread, all produced by the church.

“Everything made is tested with products sold in the stores to ensure good quality. For example, the peanut butter made here is compared to Jif and Skippy to make sure it is the same quality,” Nelson said.

The tour came to an end as visitors made their way to the familiar Deseret Industries. The church-owned thrift store collects second-hand items. People around Utah donate unwanted items and the DI sells them again at a low cost.

“Not everything is second-hand. Many cabinets are made and sold by the church and they’re brand new,” Nelson said.

Many items donated to the DI also go to the church’s Humanitarian Center and are distributed to the poor and needy.

“Deseret Industries is more than just a thrift store,” said Randy Foote, assistant manager of Deseret Industries. “The DI also offers a community voucher program at no cost. Forty-six DIs participate in this program in Utah, but the need is across the board. People use the vouchers to purchase what they need at the DI,” he said.

The LDS church partners with local nonprofits that provide service. Jim Goodrich, manager of Welfare Square, says all excess food, clothing and goods produced at Welfare Square are donated to other local service organizations, like the Utah Food Bank.

“There seems to be a greater need for food and clothing here because of our location,” Foot said. “We often serve people living on the west side because we are on the west side. People need help everywhere though,” he said.

Becky French is a job coach trainer at the DI and works with all types of people. French decided to work here after moving to Utah from Pennsylvania. She said she was praying for work and found the job through LDS Employment Services.

“One of the things I love most is that they help anyone, it doesn’t matter where they came from. We help them to be self-reliant,” French said. She then shared a story of a woman she worked with who came from the west side of Salt Lake. “She was very capable, but she didn’t have any confidence because she had been abused. I challenged her to higher responsibilities and she was always worried at first but she eventually became a department leader and she’s done well,” she said.

French can recount each individual she has worked with and says they may look intimidating on the outside, but once she got to know them she grew to love them.

“I used to see rough-looking people on the street and feel nervous about working with them,” French said. “After spending some time with these people, it doesn’t matter their past. We’re all people with the same needs and we all want to be able to take care of ourselves and our children. When you give someone a chance, you can see the difference.”

LDS Humanitarian Center and Inner City Project helps refugees



  • See a slideshow about an English class provided by the LDS Humanitarian Center and hear from a service missionary (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Amy Wylie, 49, and her husband have been volunteering with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Inner City Project for nine years. They started volunteering with the project as service missionaries in a ward in Salt Lake; now they serve as assistant directors of refugee services for the project.

This is their church calling. They turned in their missionary application papers to serve a 30-month service mission, the longest term a service missionary can serve without resubmitting another application.

The LDS church has several programs designed to help refugees adjust to life in Utah. One of them, the Inner City Project, helps prevent people from getting lost in the transfer between agencies giving care to refugees.

For example, at the International Rescue Committee most refugees only have six months before their case is transferred to another agency. However, the Inner City missionaries are always available to help and give service.

“Service missionaries play a bigger role longer term,” Wylie said.

Service missionaries are not the same as the church’s full-time missionaries who spend every day proselytizing. These missionaries are there to help people in the area, whether they are members of the church or not.

About 500 service missionaries currently serve in Salt Lake City. They are not specifically assigned to work with refugees, but it is part of their overall assignment in the ward, or area in which they work.

“When you are assigned to a ward you become a part of that ward and you take what ever the bishop asks you to do,” Wylie said. When missionaries are assigned to work in an area with a large refugee population it is likely the bishop will send them to assist them.

“We serve as a resource to help train. If they have questions and don’t know where to go they will call us and we will help them figure out a plan of action,” Wylie said.

They also help refugee children enroll in school and make sure they are getting the attention in class they need.

“We met one of the lost boys of Sudan in our first mission assignment,” Wylie said. Wilson was 7 years old when he was separated from his family during an attack on his village. He ended up in a refugee camp and hasn’t seen or heard from his family since.

Wilson met the Wylie family during church. He would sit with the family every week because he felt comfortable with them.

One Sunday he handed Wylie a note.

“It said ‘Could I have a picture of your family to remember them by?’ and I realized that he had no picture of a family, he didn’t belong to a family,” Wylie said.

The Wylies went to Temple Square where they took a family picture with Wilson in front of the temple.

Now Wylie shares her copy of the picture with people every chance she gets. She feels that people think it takes too much effort to make a difference in people’s lives.

“Look how simple it was. He now calls me mum and my children his brother and sisters,” Wylie said.

The Inner City Project also plays a role in finding refugees jobs. Missionaries help them find work at the LDS Church Humanitarian Center and at the Deseret Industries.

“It is set up to train them and help them learn skills and move them out to the work force,” Wylie said.

The LDS church established the Humanitarian Center in 1991 in Salt Lake City. It is located on the corner of 1700 South and Bennett Road. According to its mission statement, the center’s mission is three fold: “To prepare emergency relief supplies for shipment worldwide, to train those desiring to develop employable skills and become self-reliant and to offer service opportunities.”

The Humanitarian Center provides various skill training for refugees. They learn computer skills, they attend job etiquette classes to learn appropriate behavior in the work place, and they learn English. A teacher from the Granite School District teaches ESL classes, said Bart Hill, the center’s development manager.

During 2006, 175 refugees were employed at the Humanitarian Center. They are involved in sorting and bailing clothing. Items are sent to areas around the world where they are distributed to the needy.

They also put together packages the Humanitarian Center distributes, including hygiene kits filled with combs and toothbrushes, newborn kits filled with diapers and bottles, and school kits filled with rulers and pencils.

To obtain a job at the center refugees only need an endorsement from the bishop of the area they live in, as well as documentation proving they can legally work in the United States.

They manage the language barrier with help from interpreters who work with local relocation agencies. Some refugees have even learned English well enough to translate for those who need it.

Refugees working for the Humanitarian Center earn wages ranging from $6.55 to $9 per hour. They can earn more in the clothing sorting and bailing departments if they prepare shipments quickly for transport.

A refugee’s job performance is evaluated on a quarterly basis to make sure their work skills are progressing. Once refugees have worked for a year at the Humanitarian Center they are better qualified to work other jobs, Hill said.

“The great thing here is assisting them as they move toward self-reliance,” Hill said.

Luna Sasa, 28, works as a sorter in the medical supplies department at the Humanitarian Center. She helps gets the emergency medical supplies ready to be shipped.

Sasa was born in Sudan. She fled eight years ago with her mother, sister and her then 3-year-old daughter because of war.

She kept getting laid off because she lacked certain skills other jobs required. She was looking for a job she could hold down. Then she heard about the skills training program at the Humanitarian Center from the bishop in her area.

“I went to the bishop and he gave me the paper, and I started working here,” Sasa said.

Since Sasa has started working at the Humanitarian Center she has learned how to use a computer, how to type and how to use programs like Excel and PowerPoint.

Eventually Sasa wants to study at LDS Business College to become a medical assistant.

“Refugees need a lot of friends,” Wylie said. “They need people that just welcome them and take them into their neighborhoods and communities and school systems.”

Wylie and her family invite these friends over to her house in Salt Lake to celebrate holidays together.

“They are still a big part of our family. One night we had about 11 languages in our home,” Wylie said.

Whenever she hears that one of the refugees she stays in touch with has had a child, Wylie rushes over in her van that she has filled with boxes of supplies she gives to refugees. She gives the new parents a box overflowing with baby clothes and blankets.

“They aren’t assignments to us,” said Wylie, “we consider them our brothers and sisters.”

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