Every summer, Mormon youth groups reenact the trek pioneers made with their hand-carts across the Great Plains of the United States to Utah to escape persecution. The Mormon pioneers endured many hardships along the trail.
Many of the teens from the Bountiful Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been on a trek experience before and wanted to give the special needs Mutual representing 26 stakes in Davis County in northern Utah a sense of what the early Latter-day Saints experienced 167 years ago.
As part of their summer youth conference, they invited the special needs group to join them at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City for a day activity on Friday morning, 11 July 2014, the location where the pioneers led by Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847. The overcast skies were a welcomed relief for the participants from the recent sunny and hot weather.
About 60 members of the South Davis Special Needs Mutual, who range in age from 12 to older than 70, and their leaders were greeted by 130 Bountiful youth and their more than 30 adult advisers for the trek activity, which included pioneer reenactments and music. The youth wore clothing reminiscent of the early pioneers as part of the reenactment and they camped at the park overnight so they could be ready when the bus carrying the special needs participants arrived the following morning.
“It’s a shortened version, but it’s beautiful,” said Michelle Glaittli, Young Women president of the South Davis Special Needs Mutual, who described the two-mile loop around the park as a huge undertaking for the members of her group who struggle with many different disabilities. “They have heart conditions, they’ve got diabetes, we’ve got people with cerebral palsy, we have a lot of special needs; this is really something big for them.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to come out and do something challenging, something that extraordinary, and feel the Lord’s blessings and the spirituality of this trek,” said John Ord, Young Men president of the South Davis Special Needs Mutual. “We think it will be a real blessing for both of us.”
Seventeen-year-old Wayne Montgomery and 14-year-old Melissa Hendricks have been on a committee planning the trek since January. Montgomery’s brother is autistic, and he enjoys providing service to the special needs group. “Not only have we given them an opportunity to do what they don’t normally get to experience, but they have given us countless examples so far of their enthusiasm,” said Montgomery.
This was the first time Hendricks has been on a trek, and she was grateful to share it with the special needs participants. “You can’t help but smile when you’re around them; they’re just amazing,” she beamed.
Traditional trek experiences usually last for at least several days, and participants can walk many miles a day. The youth are divided into “families” with whom they spend their time walking, eating and sleeping during modern-day treks.
Andrea Holfert of Bountiful, who was wearing an apron made by her mother, described the trek as “fun and exciting,” and she enjoyed being with people she knows. “They’re good friends, and they’re friendly and stay together,” said Holfert. She added that the “easy hill” they hiked was not as difficult as the terrain her pioneer ancestors encountered.
“Our youth are really excited to have this opportunity,” commented David Robbins, chairman of the Bountiful Stake youth conference committee, who explained the young men and young women were looking for a “direct service” opportunity. “We’ve actually been interacting with the South Davis Special Needs Mutual for a while,” said Robbins. “When we talked about what we’re going to do here, they thought this would be fantastic for us to get a perspective of our individual worth as we have an opportunity to work with these great souls.”
“It takes a lot of people to be able to pull something off like this, but what we find is there are so many people who are willing to share their talents and their love with them that we have a wonderful program,” said Glaittli. “Anyone who ever serves in this capacity is touched forever.”
“I believe every one of us have special needs, and some just in a different way,” added Glaittli. “When we recognize that, we love each other more and are more patient and understanding, and they show us by example how to treat each other. They are the best examples.”
Tracy Prince has been an adviser for the South Davis Special Needs Mutual for 17 years. Prince, who was enjoying the trek in her wheelchair, says it is a Church calling that she never wants to give up. “They tell us we’re the teachers, but we’re not the teachers,” said Prince. “They teach us. It’s total unconditional love.”
The Special Needs Mutual was started in Davis County more than 40 years ago, making it the oldest program and perhaps largest group of its kind with its estimated 150 members in the Church.
One female special needs participant summarized the trek experience with a quote from the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, “Where [family means] no one gets left behind [or forgotten].”