'True compassion': Members of the LDS Developmental Center Ward serve those who serve them

By Blair Howell, For the Deseret News

Published: Thu, Aug. 28, 2014, 5:00 a.m. MDT

 Demont Hill and Noah Wolford sing with Joey Stagg, a member of the Developmental Center Ward of the Highland Utah East Stake, during Sunday School on Aug. 24, 2014 in American Fork.

Demont Hill and Noah Wolford sing with Joey Stagg, a member of the Developmental Center Ward of the Highland Utah East Stake, during Sunday School on Aug. 24, 2014 in American Fork.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

AMERICAN FORK — The LDS meetinghouse across the street from the Mt. Timpanogos Utah Temple looks like any other. Inside on Sunday mornings, Aaronic Priesthood holders, dressed in white shirts and ties, pass the sacrament to the congregation. After sacrament meeting concludes, teachers check out materials from the meetinghouse library for classes that follow.

But in so many other ways, the ward that meets there is unlike any other.

The deacons who pass the sacrament may need assistance to make sure a row of pews is not missed. The Sunday School instructors are not regular members living within the established ward boundaries. And though the temple is within walking distance, none of the ward members have full temple recommends to use it regularly.

The Developmental Center Ward of the Highland Utah East Stake is a unique congregation in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its members are residents of the neighboring Utah State Developmental Center, an intermediate-care facility for people with intellectual disabilities that operates under the direction of the Department of Human Services, Division of Services for People with Disabilities.

Bishop Charles F. Cozzens leads the ward of members whose "social, intellectual and emotional development is not advanced to the point that we would consider them accountable," he said. Those who work with the ward members refer to it affectionately as the "celestial ward."

Whether or not an LDS Church member with intellectual disabilities is accountable and needs saving ordinances varies by individual. According to the Disability Resources page on lds.org, the question of baptism is "between parents, the child and local priesthood leaders." The members of the Developmental Center Ward have typically not received all the saving ordinances, which include temple ordinances — though some may be baptized members and some hold the Aaronic Priesthood.

Bishop Cozzens believes that all individuals sent to Earth are capable of growth and benefit from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“There is a childlike innocence and purity to our members that is very, very touching,” Bishop Cozzens said. “This is their ward, so we try to accommodate all of their needs. We are their proxy in many instances, and we try to feel the Spirit to learn what it is they really need.”

According to a 1998 article in the LDS Church News, the Developmental Center Ward was "created by direct action of the First Presidency." At a Nov. 8, 1967 meeting in north Utah County, President N. Eldon Tanner, then a member of the LDS Church's First Presidency, encouraged stake presidents to support residents at what was then called the State Training School. President Hugh B. Brown, also a member of the First Presidency at the time, dedicated the meetinghouse a few days later and, according to the LDS Church News article, returned in October 1973 for an 89th birthday celebration in his honor.

An official First Presidency statement published in the LDS Church News in April 1989 urged leaders and members to "provide opportunities for members with disabilities to learn about the Savior and pattern their lives after him," "assist in the successful church participation of people with disabilities and the appreciation of their unique gifts," and "provide meaningful opportunities for members with disabilities to serve, teach and lead others."

The statement also indicates that church leaders “are seeking more creative ways of providing religious training for those with physical, mental and emotional impairments. But there is an even greater need to reduce the barriers imposed by a lack of understanding and acceptance of those who have disabilities.

“It is our opportunity and our responsibility to follow the example of Jesus in loving our neighbors, and that includes those with disabilities," the statement reads.

The Developmental Center Ward is made up of about 150 members. However, each Sunday, the chapel’s pews are filled with visitors who spill out to nearly fill the building’s recreation hall, making it appear that weekly attendance is the size of a stake conference congregation.

Approximately 90 individuals are called from within a 33-stake area to teaching and leadership positions in the Developmental Center Ward. Each week, rotating groups of Young Men and Young Women from these surrounding stakes join the congregation to support however they can, whether it be pushing wheelchairs, assisting member priesthood holders in administering the sacrament, socializing or sharing their testimonies.

It is an opportunity to serve, but Bishop Cozzens is quick to explain that ward members with disabilities provide the most service.

“When we were called, we came here thinking that we were serving these people,” he said. “But as we get acquainted with them and know their individual personalities, we are amazed that we can now see that they are serving us.

"They are showing us what true compassion, humility and gentleness is. We’re learning more from them than they are learning from us. I hear that over and over again, from both the leaders called from other wards and our Sunday youth volunteers.”

Bishop Cozzens said he carefully examines how ward members can be taught and uplifted, and that includes “not doing too much for them, which would not allow them to grow.

“In some cases, people think that they are totally disabled and need to be helped with everything,” Bishop Cozzens said. “That isn’t the case. They are all unique individuals with a wide range of abilities. In nearly all cases, they are not 100 percent disabled but have individual skills and strengths that can be encouraged to grow. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses.

“So many of the members in this ward have been pushed aside, with no attention given. But when they feel our love and acceptance, they return it tenfold.

“We need to learn how to talk to them and discover that they are just like regular people. They need love and attention. And when we do love and cherish them, we feel a special spirit about them.”

Blair Howell is the father of Brett Howell, a member of the Developmental Center Ward.

1. take2ndbreath
Princeton, TX,
Aug. 28, 2014

How wonderful! I am in a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. I taught in Relief Society, but I often felt left out of activities. I was talking to my bishop one day and he asked me if I felt included in the ward and did I feel the ward was utilizing all of my abilities. I simply answered "no" (with a smile.) Well, be careful what you wish for - I now have new opportunities to serve and teach in the Primary (which I absolutely love.) I have made new friends, but I don’t like leaving my electric wheelchair at home and having my friends push me in my manual chair. Well, people have come up with creative ideas to try to get my electric wheelchair to special events (like Pioneer Day), and I just learned that a brother in the ward is looking into purchasing a lift that transports electric wheelchairs. His plan may not come to fruition, but just him thinking of *me* and trying so hard to provide me more independence and participation touches me beyond description. I’m very grateful that the Church has become more aware of the disabled.

2. Johnny Triumph
American Fork, UT,
Aug. 28, 2014

I grew up in Lehi and we had multiple opportunities to serve in this amazing Ward, mostly pushing wheelchairs and getting to interact with the residents. This service left a memorable impact on me and how I view those with disabilities. We were even able to participate in Ward 'Dances', having fun and being part of things. Between this service opportunity and that of holding Sacrament Mtgs at local nursing homes for the elderly I feel that I received, and our youth today continue to receive, chances to expand our mental and spiritual horizons.

3. Wellhellothere
Idaho Falls, ID,
Aug. 28, 2014

We have family members that served missions there. We visited the ward a couple of times. I will never forget how precious and wonderful all of the ward members are. We were so impressed with the valiant youth and others who faithfully serve each Sunday, and other days too. It was a wonderful experience for us. One that will live in our pleasant memories forever!

4. MIMom
Mt Pleasant, MI,
Aug. 28, 2014

I'm really curious as to why most media coverage relating to those with disabilities usually only provides the perspective of those without the perceived disability and not the perspective of those with the disability. If there are members of this ward who hold the priesthood and are baptized I'm sure they can express themselves and I would love to hear of their perspective of being in a ward like this and what they gain. In other fairly recent articles I noticed the same thing. There was maybe one reference to someone with a disability or maybe a parent or family member. But they are people too. I'd love to hear their voice in these matters.

5. call_me_ishmael
Aug. 28, 2014

My 22 year old son has autism and lives in a similar facility in Orem. He and the other members of the "Mesa Vista" family have been incredible blessings in my life. They have an amazingly positive outlook on life, enjoying each little thing. We take our toy poodle with us on visits. A few residents who never speak and seem to have "blank emotions" just come to life when they pet our dog. When we have attended Sacrament meeting with Charlie, it is beautiful to watch the love that the residents have for one another. Some residents can't pick up the bread or water, so, another resident will help them, even setting the bread in their mouth. In seeing these beautiful people, I can honestly say that I have seen angels.