His "students" laughed as they told me about the bag of rocks.

"We thought he was kind of stupid," Mike said. "He came into class wearing this backpack, full of rocks, and kept motioning how heavy they were. He just sat there wearing it, sighing and adjusting it so we'd know it was really uncomfortable.Finally, we said, `Why don't you take it off if it's so heavy?'

"He shrugged and took out a rock. `This is my grandpa,' he told us. `I wish I'd gotten to show him how much I loved him.' "

Each rock, it turned out, was a particular feeling of guilt or regret. And even when the instructor finally let one go, he'd eventually return to it and try to salvage it from the garbage.

The "students" who told me the story come from different backgrounds.

Letty, 46, was once director of a division of continuing education for a university. A heart attack left her physically and emotionally unprepared to start over.

Mike, 52, was an active, admittedly short-tempered man who worked at hard physical labor all his life and let off steam with anger. His heart attack not only left him unable to work, but demanded that he change his entire way of life, beginning with his attitudes. He also faces heart surgery.

Teresa, 32, was suicidal. Her coping-with-stress skills were so poor that she was, in her own words, "a wreck," unable to work or even function.

Pat is the oldest. When he developed serious back problems, he thought he'd never work again.

Despite the disparity of their backgrounds, the four have much in common. For one thing, each one is putting together a new life, full of promise and joy.

And each one gives credit to the Social Service Department's Provo district's self-sufficiency program staff - and a man named Pete Petersen, their counselor - for a variety of things, from restoring confidence and hope to literally giving them the will to go on.

Since I started writing about social services, I have heard a lot of complaints about various caseworkers and even the "system" in general.

There are complaints about the frustrations of long lines and delays, about impersonal treatment, about lost paperwork, and caseloads that are much too large to allow any personal approach.

It was nice to hear an entirely different song when I visited Provo recently.

I went to sit in on a self-sufficiency class and to look at what's being done to get those who are on general assistance for medical problems back on their feet.

Petersen didn't corner all the rave reviews; the consensus is that the Provo office is full of dedicated, caring people who, by their own admission, will sometimes bend the rules (within the letter of the law, I was assured) in order to get things moving.

The approach is interesting and even entertaining.

The self-sufficiency classes include discussions, reading assignments that are designed to provoke thought, stress-reduction techniques and some amusing exercises.

One week, for example, Petersen brought in boxes of odds and ends like thumbtacks, paper clips and rubber bands and challenged small teams of clients to "build a turkey." The motley assortment of articles did, in fact, become very unusual turkeys as the client-teams rose to the challenge.

Sometimes, staff members are asked to bring a client as a sort of partner to a class.

One time, Petersen divided a class into teams to "think-tank" ways they could earn money in the next week. ("Sell blood? Pre-sell organs? Some of the ideas were wild," he told me, "but it got them thinking.").

He ended the discussion by challenging each person to earn $25 by the next class - and document it. He would match the money of those who were successful.

Almost everyone was, and it showed them that with creativity and a little drive, they could earn some money. That exercise was a step toward getting off the assistance rolls, he said.

The most important thing to the Provo office's success seems to be the personal touch.

Clients are sent letters of encouragement, the counselor forms a personal relationship and sees each one as an individual with not only needs, but potential.

Instead of creating paperwork, people like Petersen seem to become partners in cutting through the paperwork and red tape.

"There's something very profound going on in this building," Letty said.

"These efforts are putting life into programs that were merely existing. Instead of perpetuating a victim cycle, you're going to see people get back on their feet or get there for the first time and give back many times over. There's power in it now."