When Erin Norton was born with cerebral palsy, doctors told her mother that she wouldn’t have enough brain function to eat or talk. Now at 35 years old, Norton’s favorite food is McDonald’s French fries and she “talks nonstop,” according to her mother.
To add to these accomplishments, Norton, a member of the Pinecrest Ward, Sandy Lone Peak Stake, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was able to receive her Young Womanhood Recognition Award on Nov. 16 with a little help from her nine best friends — the young women in her ward.
“My favorite thing about Erin is that she brings a special feeling into the room whenever she enters,” said Lizzy Erwin, a Beehive in Norton’s ward. “She’s just awesome, and she makes me feel happy when she grins.”
Stephanie Marks, another Beehive, which includes the girls who are 12 and 13 years old, said that every time Norton comes to church, everyone is “happier and more energetic.”
When Schonie Erickson, the advisor for Laurel class, who are the 16- and 17-year-old girls, was preparing a lesson for the girls about service, she found a video on youth.lds.org called “For Madison,” which featured a group of young women who helped an autistic member of their group earn her medallion.
Soon after Erickson's lesson, Norton’s mother, Deborah Kemp, with Norton as her assistant, was called to teach the Beehives.
Erickson said that when she found out that Kemp and Norton would be serving in the ward's Young Women organizations, she had the impression that “Erin needs to get her Personal Progress done, and the young women need to do it,” she said.
Personal Progress is a program in the LDS Church for young women ages 12 through 18, which is made up of projects and experiences designed to develop faith through service, scripture study and personal improvement and are centered around the eight Young Women values. The requirements to receive the Young Womanhood Recognition Award include completing the value experiences and project for each value, according to lds.org.
When Erickson told Kemp about her feelings regarding Norton’s Personal Progress, Kemp said she felt that not only did Norton need it, but also “these girls at this time” needed the experience.
After obtaining permission from the stake Young Women presidency, the entire group eagerly accepted the idea.
“When we asked the Young Women, they didn’t even hesitate,” Erickson said. “They were so optimistic about it, and so excited.”
While some of the girls had already finished the Personal Progress program, many were in the process and others hadn’t started. Once they committed to work on individual value projects for Norton's project, each girl put her full focus on Norton's Personal Progress, rather than her own.
“I think they learned sacrifice,” said Gwen Mathys, the first counselor in the ward's Young Women presidency. “One of our girls was just a few pages short of finishing the Book of Mormon for her medallion, but she got Erin’s value done instead.”
Monique Marks, a Laurel in the group who had completed the Personal Progress program as a Beehive, said she loved being able to go through the value experiences again.
“I think that since we were all doing it for her, all of us sort of had the same feeling that we really wanted to do it for her,” Stephanie said. “So we connected more in trying to do it for her together.”
Each of the young women completed a different project for Norton, including making a cross-stitch pillow, decorating a handbag, sewing a scarf and reading the Book of Mormon.
Beth Sutherland, a Beehive class member who put on a dance party dedicated to Norton, played three songs to teach the group the value of good music.
“Erin is always asking for music in class (at church),” Beth said. “She always wants music, so it was a fun time to dance with her.”
According to Kemp, the dance party was the first time most of the girls had seen Norton out of her wheelchair.
“She was just grinning from ear to ear, jumping around and dancing and laughing, and I think the girls got to see a more personable side of her. It just broke the ice,” Kemp said.
Kendyl Bell, a Beehive in the group, said Personal Progress is a lot of work, and “afterwards, when you look back, you can see how many blessings it gave you."
“I feel like (Personal Progress) is a really big part of developing your personality,” Lizzy said. “Especially at our age, people struggle finding out who they are and who they want to be. When you really think about the values, I think they really help you understand and comprehend more who you want to be, what kind of a friend you want to be and what you want your personality to be.”
Chelsea Sutherland, a Laurel, began doing things with Norton, which grew into visiting her on her own, and eventually progressed into a job. Because of her experience, she is now an aid for Norton every day after school.
“Just like how Chelsea grew closer to Erin, I think Personal Progress helps us grow closer to everyone that we serve and everyone we’re kind to, especially in this situation — we have all grown closer together,” Stephanie said.
Sabrina Longman, another Beehive in the group, said that when Norton received her medallion, she was really excited and she was smiling and laughing, and "it brought so much joy to me." The Young Women general presidency also wrote Norton a letter to congratulate her on her accomplishment.
“I felt like our group was already close as it was at the beginning,” Sabrina said. “This has brought us so much closer and I’m grateful for that.”
As a Young Women leader, Erickson noticed the girls changed throughout the experience. She said at first, the girls were shy and didn’t know how to approach or talk to Norton. However, she remembered watching them all hug her when she received her medallion, and one girl gave Norton a kiss on the cheek.
“They really are learning to see people the way that Christ does,” Erickson said. “I feel like they not only grew closer as a group, but they definitely grew closer to Heavenly Father. They are able to see the world in a totally different light now.”