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Suzanne Steed, 17, stood on the stage of the Wildcat Theater on Wednesday afternoon, looking down at the stage’s floor, seemingly frightened by the crowd. Her hair covered much of her face. She spoke softly and slowly, and the Wildcat Theater was completely silent as the audience listened. Steed is a member of a family who came out of a polygamous sect roughly a year ago.
“When you live in a place like that, you trust few people,” Steed said. “But the people you trust, you hold very dear. My mom and my siblings and I were very close. It was a choice between our religion and (our family) staying together. And we chose to stay together.”
Steed briefly took the stage to share some of her experiences as part of a presentation put on by Holding Out HELP, a nonprofit organization which offers assistance and support to families and individuals who come from polygamous backgrounds. Tonia Tewell, the founder and executive director of Holding Out HELP, said the organization aims to help meet the physical, emotional and educational needs of those coming out of polygamous sects.
The presentation called attention to some of what those born into polygamous sects might suffer. Tewell spoke of jobs being taken, families broken apart, children given to new mothers and fathers, arranged marriages for girls barely teenagers, and numerous tragedies caused by the social structure and organization within these polygamous sects. Tewell also wanted to emphasize that, though these tragedies occur, not everyone in these groups are evil or horrible people, and much of it is a result of the social hierarchies and traditions.
Tewell said that those coming out of polygamous sects are often like refugees from another country, and have not just physical needs, such as housing and food and clothing, but need emotional support and general education about life skills and the world — everything from building friendships to how to open a bank account.
“The boys always want to know, ‘How in the heck do we talk to a girl? All of our marriages were prearranged,’” Tewell said.
Elissa Wall also spoke at the event. Wall, along with Lisa Pulitzer, wrote the New York Times bestseller “Stolen Innocence,” the true account of her growing up in a polygamous sect, being forced to marry her 19-year-old first cousin at the age of 14, and eventually freeing herself from Warren Jeffs and his polygamous sect. Wall spoke about some of her experiences growing up in polygamy, and also about the work she’s done with Holding Out HELP, which includes providing friendship and mentoring to newly out families and individuals.
Travis Henderson and Hannah Hastings, WSU students studying education and special education, said they attended the event because they thought it sounded interesting. Hastings said hearing the talk was powerful and now that she and Henderson knew about it, they were already looking into how they could help the nonprofit organization.
“It was mind-blowing,” Henderson said. “I didn’t realize how much it was going on.”
Sandi Weber, the community chair for the Center for Diversity and Unity, helped orchestrate the event. Weber said it’s a cause she feels strongly about and that she’s been working on getting the group up on campus since the fall of 2011.
“I feel like Weber State has a lot to offer in the way of assistance to Holding Out HELP,” Weber said. “I also feel like Weber State is the perfect home for a lot of their refugees. Being that we are over half nontrad, we cover the needs of people who are not just your traditional right-out-of-high-school students.”
Weber said she encourages people to take action, paraphrasing something a former professor of hers told her: “Now that you know about it, do something about it.”
Tewell said this is a worthwhile cause that’s easy to get involved with.
“I hear of all of the different religions going on mission trips,” Tewell said. “And, you know, there’s a mission field right here in your own backyard. This is a tragedy that’s happening right here in the states of Utah and Arizona . . . and the needs are so incredibly great and the resources are so few. I just feel — as I always preach — it’s going to take every walk of life in this community to really turn this around and make a difference in these people’s lives.”
Tewell said anyone interested in learning more or volunteering should visit Holding Out HELP’s website at www.holdingouthelp.org.