Glenn and Kathy Sorte serve as volunteer missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in the Inner City Project of Salt Lake City. After a lifetime of Church service, they are still keeping busy by responding to the needs of central city families.
Their list of responsibilities may include coordinating appointments and providing transportation to visit the doctor, the dentist, the job interview or the computer repair shop. They could teach English as a second language, basic piano lessons or budgeting, or tutor students in their school assignments. They help plan and execute activities and socials and arrange donations of clothing, household supplies, car seats, diapers and baby formula, holiday gift cards and even tuition.
“Though is it always challenging, this experience expands our view, opens our eyes and changes our hearts — it’s a life-changing event for us too,” the Sortes admit.
“The Inner City Project, which began in 1997, is an effort to share the principles of self-reliance,” explained R. Gene Moffitt, president of the project. “We work with families under the guidance of the neighborhood bishop (lay Church leader) to help them help themselves. The project becomes an everyday implementation of the Church’s welfare principles where we see that, with support and encouragement, individuals can find a new direction in their lives.” (See the Church’s welfare homepage.)
Lou Ann, for example, was a recovering drug addict serving a detention term when she met Ed and Viola Murray, Inner City Project missionaries assigned to the Metropolitan Jail. “Ed asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought, ‘What could I do? I had already ruined my life with drugs and broken relationships,’’’ Lou Ann recalled. “But they simply listened. They taught me about goals and the step-by-step process to achieve them. I began to see how each part came together. They helped me learn what resources were available, but most of all, they never passed an opportunity to teach with love and to support me as I learned to pull myself back.”
The inner city missionaries serve from all walks of life: from physician to firefighter, from teacher to building contractor and from attorney to homemaker. They live in every corner of the Salt Lake Valley, but some travel in from adjoining counties to join the ranks of Church-service missionaries called to work in the “project.” Each pair of volunteer missionaries is assigned to an inner city congregation and then to several families within the congregation. Immigrants, families with health or economic challenges, retired individuals and even those detained in the city’s correctional facilities are identified for assistance. As a part of their assignment, missionaries offer referrals to community agencies, educational facilities, health and financial institutions and the Church-sponsored Deseret Industries programs, all resources that assist individuals in discovering new directions and gaining skills in their personal and family lives. When the referral is accepted, the missionaries often accompany the family member to the appointment or event, easing the transition in an unfamiliar situation.
Over 700 individuals currently serve in the diverse inner city congregations where six native languages — Swahili, Portuguese, Spanish, Samoan, Tongan and Cambodian — are spoken.
Implementing the wide variety of services available through the project assists the inner city residents in a myriad of ways.
For Celine, a young mother of five and a political refugee from Guinea in West Africa, the challenges have been extreme. With help, she escaped from jail in her homeland and immigrated to the United States. Through a friend at the Salt Lake YWCA Women’s Shelter, she found a “project” Church activity night and a new family of service missionaries. Eventually, after four long years, her children arrived in Salt Lake. The children, ages 9-20, are now enrolled in school, comfortably speaking English and settling in another culture. Celine, who was a nurse in Africa, works in an elder care facility and is attending school to obtain a Utah nursing license.
In 1997, Eva and Helen, widows living in a Salt Lake City retirement home, organized a crocheting activity in their neighborhood. They made 50 matching hats and scarves for the residents of the local homeless shelter. The effort continued and has now expanded to a project-adopted program called “Hearts Knit Together.” Welcome kits are currently donated to statewide agencies that provide respite for battered women and children. Nearly 2,000 kits were donated in 2011; almost 700 have already been donated in 2012. After 15 years, each kit still contains a hand-crocheted scarf and hat donated by the widows in the retirement home.
Luis, a father of seven, lost his job in November 2008. Service missionaries Jay and Julie Rhodes invited him to attend a five-session Self-Employment Seminar. “After I was laid off in my old job, Rhodes helped me develop a business plan to open a restaurant myself,” Luis explained. “He helped me with the details, the financial arrangements, the inventory process, even with the menu.” Luis proudly celebrates the third anniversary of his successful business in March 2012 and credits the missionary support for his achievement.
Darby and Sharon Checketts coordinate the Hispanic Education Program of the project. “We conduct local meetings as well as a quarterly Education and Career Building Workshop for high school and college students,” Darby reported. “Over the last year we have been able to assist over 200 students in finding grants or loans to help further their education. The majority of them are currently in college, while others are making preparations to attend.”
In addition to the over 700 serving missionaries who often spend 20 to 30 hours a week assisting their assigned families, the Inner City Project has a back-up team in place. “We have what we call a ‘storehouse of specialists,’ professionals in the community who fill in the blanks,” explained Earl Maesar, a volunteer supervisor of the storehouse. “We first ask our missionaries to turn to their assigned congregations for solutions. If they don’t have the local resources, we refer them back to their own neighborhoods for help. Then the support of the community specialists becomes available. We’ve learned that there is no problem that arises that we cannot solve with these resources.”
As individuals receive assistance, they are encouraged to pay for services within their personal abilities. They often render work in the local Church meetinghouse or at the Church’s cannery in return for commodities and other benefits. Recipients are even invited to write thank you notes to providers.
Elder Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus Church leader, helped inspire the Inner City Project when he was responsible for Salt Lake City Church members. Elder Morrison, in 1996, invited Jeffrey C. Swinton, then president of an inner city stake, to chair a committee. “Elder Morrison asked me to ‘save the inner city without spending a dime and utilizing volunteer resources to accomplish the task,’” Swinton said. “Then he gave me some very basic information and said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ After careful research and analysis, we began the project in 1997, starting with six stakes and a request for 160 missionaries.”
The Inner City Project continues to expand as needs increase and additional volunteers join the ranks of those serving. President Moffitt plans on utilizing 950 missionaries by the end of 2012. More than 7,000 individuals have served since 1997.
“It’s a lot of inner city folks with remarkable stories,” said Rich McKeown, a Church leader in the inner city. “It is an inspiring effort to move forward, to try and lift people impacted by birth, by addictive behaviors, by health and other challenging circumstances, but you share in miraculous service that changes lives.”