Nearly 200 people, including a 97-year-old woman, have called a hotline since Sunday offering to help scores of young men and boys who were thrown out of the nation’s largest polygamous community in a pair of remote communities along the Arizona-Utah state line.
“We’ve had a wonderfully large response,” said Lynette Phillips, director of Smiles for Diversity, a non-profit group that launched a nationwide appeal for the boys.
“I don’t want to say we are overwhelmed, because we can always use help. But the response has been amazing.”
In a move officials hailed as courageous and unprecedented, dozens of young men and boys gathered on the steps of the Utah capitol in Salt Lake City last Saturday to tell how their lives were shattered by the leadership of their polygamous faith.
The youths said they represented but a fraction of more than 400 males who either were excommunicated or driven from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1998.
Those shock expulsions coincided with the rise to power of Warren Jeffs, president and self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS. Jeffs officially took power in 2002 when his father, Rulon Jeffs, died at age 92, but the younger Jeffs, now 48, controlled the inner workings of the sect for several years before that.
Jeffs, who authorities say has as many as 50 wives, was accused in a lawsuit last week of serially sodomizing his nephew as a child and covering up widespread sexual molestations by other FLDS leaders for decades. He denied the allegations in a written statement issued by his lawyer.
The young men and boys who came forward last weekend said Jeffs personally ordered them out of the twin communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City for a wide range of perceived violations of church policy ranging from rolling up the long sleeves on their shirts to watching movies or wanting to go to public school.
None of the young males banished from faith and family has much more than an eighth-grade education. All have been told since early childhood that if they ever left the church they faced eternal damnation in the afterlife and would be ground to dust in this life.
The combination of geographic isolation, religious indoctrination and little education leaves the young men and boys unprepared to cope with life in the outside world when they are exiled.
“Our main focus right now is getting them their high school equivalency and keeping them safe,” said Phillips.
At last Saturday’s gathering on the steps of the capitol, two prominent figures, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and author Jonathan Krakauer, announced they had agreed to mentor young men abandoned by the FLDS and called on other volunteers to help. Krakauer wrote the book Under the Banner of Heaven, which drew national attention to the FLDS lifestyle.
Within 48 hours of those pleas for help, Phillips said 144 people called the toll-free hotline offering everything from money to clothing, jobs and housing. By midday Tuesday, the number of callers was nearly 200, she said.
“We even got a call from a 97-year-old lady who lives on a fixed income who wanted to donate $100,” said Phillips. “She told us she was so moved that she would have taken in one of the boys if she were just a little younger.”
The young men and boys range in age from their mid teens to early 20s. None who have come forward so far is eligible to be legally adopted, but several need housing and mentoring.
They are concentrated for now in two clusters, one in Salt Lake City and one in St. George, Utah, about 40 miles outside the Colorado City-Hildale area where they grew up.
“We are doing our best to match up the volunteers with the kids that need help,” Phillips. “We are letting some of them get together casually over pizza and just see if they click.”
The toll-free hotline to offer help is 1-877-Get-A-Dad. Phillips also said her group was setting up a Web site, but it still was under construction Tuesday.