WEST JORDAN — It was detente over a chicken dinner.
Polygamists, ex-polygamists, activists, lawyers and government officials were all in the same room Saturday night, supporting the newest organization to reach out to offer help to people in Utah’s cloistered polygamous communities. A fundraiser gala at Gardner Village drew nearly 200 people for the debut of Holding Out HELP (Helping, Encouraging and Loving Polygamists).
“People from all walks of life are here,” said executive director Tonia Tewell, as she stood in a crowded room where a debate for or against polygamy would be conspicuously absent from the evening’s festivities.
Tewell launched the group after sheltering a couple of women and four children who were leaving a bad situation in polygamy. Speaking to the crowd, one of those women (who asked her name not be used) said everyone’s situation is different.
“In the midst of my own crisis, my own heart went out to those from other polygamous communities who are struggling,” she said.
“We aren’t getting in the debate of for or against polygamy,” Tewell said. “We’re coming alongside them where they are at and loving them where they are at.”
It is a mission supported by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who embraced the group as part of his much-touted Safety Net Committee, a coalition of activists, polygamists, government officials and social service agencies working to combat abuse and neglect in isolated polygamous communities.
Towell [sic] has no “ax to grind” on the polygamist issue. She has no prior connection to polygamy. She is not supporting any legislative agenda. Towell simply wants to help those who need it. Anne Wilde is with Principle Voices, a group that supports polygamist rights. She said, “I think this is a very Christian thing she’s doing. I think it’s marvelous.” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also gave his endorsement, “It’s all about healing – all about opening up.”
The goal of “Holding Out HELP” is to provide shelter, food and clothing to those who want to leave polygamy and start a new life. And for those who want to stay with their families and community, Towell talks of counseling, legal assistance and support.
Tonia Tewell made a vow four years ago.
She’d been diagnosed with cancer and had spent two weeks in the hospital contemplating her life.
“I grew up with a lot of fear of failure and for me to have to stand before my Heavenly Father and say, ‘I have done nothing for you’ was not OK,” said Tewell, a nondenominational Christian.
So she made a promise to God: No matter how much time you give me, I will step forward boldly in love to serve others in whatever capacity they need.
Her calling, she believes, is helping polygamous families in need.
Tewell is the driving force behind a new nonprofit organization called Holding Out HELP, designed to offer services such as housing, legal assistance and counseling.
The inspiration for the new nonprofit came after Tewell’s own experience helping a family.
Tewell volunteered to open her home as a “safe house” through another organization. Twelve months later, she got a call: A woman and her four school-age children, along with her own mother, wanted out of a Salt Lake Valley-based polygamous community. Both women were plural wives.
“My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh boy, are we ready to take the plunge?'” Tewell said.
Tewell admits she had preconceived notions about the people she was about to welcome into her home.
“I didn’t expect them to be educated, I expected them to be in full garb with braids, the image we all have of polygamists,” she said. “When they arrived, they were some of the sweetest ladies you’ve ever met. There was nothing weird. They were just like our family.”
At that doorstep introduction, Tewell hugged one woman, told her she was safe and “she just burst out bawling.”
The family stayed six weeks, long enough for Tewell to learn a lot about what resources were available — and where the gaps and pitfalls were.
“We realized through that process that there were too many loopholes and too few resources for some of these folks to get help,” she said. “We want to be a safe place where all their needs are met.”
Tewell said the family that stayed with her had a hard time finding help. The women initially reached out to several groups, only to be told no resources were available.
Another problem: Many services are available for a woman leaving a relationship, whether plural or monogamous, where domestic violence is an issue. But Tewell said the women she helped did not experience physical violence. They also did not want to bring unwarranted attention on their community or their spouses.
“They fell through every crack in the system because they would not bring their community under,” she said.
Holding Out HELP has moved slowly and deliberately to ensure its services — food, clothing, shelter, job and education help, counseling, legal aid — are easy to access and comprehensive.
More important, she said, may be her nonprofit’s approach.
“We are throwing judgment and condemnation aside and are going to love you where you’re at and help with whatever needs you have,” Tewell said. “We’re not anti or for, but we are willing to love these folks where they are.”
More about polygamy in Utah and beyond: Latest news, photos, Salt Lake Tribune’s articles and analyses, background information
Holding Out Help
Apologetics Index research resources on polygamy
The Safety Net: Helping Victims of Domestic Violence and Child Abuse in Polygamous Communities
If you are a victim of domestic violence or abuse and need immediate help, please call the confidential help line at 1-800-897-LINK (5465). For more information, you can view The Primer, a complete guide to helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse in Polygamous communities.