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.”