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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Diane and Reynold Brown

SALT LAKE CITY — The introduction of the LDS Church's formal welfare program 75 years ago — on April 6, 1936 — provided a focus for several speakers during the 181st general conference.

First known as the Church Security Plan, the program was introduced by then-President Heber J. Grant and his counselors, J. Reuben Clark and David O. McKay. Elder Melvin J. Ballard was the first chairman and Harold B. Lee, who later became church president, the first managing director.

In its 75 years, the program has touched virtually every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially through its primary principle of fostering self-reliance. Most have been either a contributor or recipient of the program's goods and services that support individuals and families when their needs outstrip self-reliance.

Benefits have extended as well to numerous people outside church ranks in times of exceptional needs such as natural disasters. Devastating earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and other natural disasters in recent times have generated enormous needs.

In the Sunday morning general session, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton spoke on both the temporal and spiritual aspects of welfare. "As sons and daughters of God, we cannot inherit the full measure of eternal life without being fully invested in caring for each other while we are here on earth," he said. "Since the foundation of the world, the cloth of righteous societies has ever been woven from the golden threads of charity. … The prophetic welfare plan is not merely an interesting footnote in the history of the church. The principles on which it is based defines who we are as a people. It is the essence of who we are as individual disciples of our Savior and exemplar, Jesus the Christ."

Also addressing the welfare aspect of the church were:

Sister Silvia H. Allred, first counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency: "(Welfare service) is, in fact, the essence of discipleship in the true Church of Jesus Christ. … Relief Society has always been at the heart of welfare. … When love becomes the guiding principle in our care for others, our service to them becomes the gospel in action. It is the gospel in its finest moment. It is pure religion."

President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency: "Our Heavenly Father hears the prayers of his children across the earth pleading for food to eat, clothes to cover their bodies and for the dignity that would come from being able to provide for themselves. … Because the Lord hears their cries and feels your deep compassion, he has from the beginning provided ways for his disciples to help. He has invited his children to consecrate their time, their means and themselves to join with him in serving others."

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson: "I declare that the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inspired of Almighty God."

The welfare program affects individual church members in many ways. A handful of examples includes:

Reynold and Diane Brown, American Fork, who served missions in India. When the horrific tsunami of 2004 killed more than 150,000 and devastated huge areas of countries abutting the Indian Ocean, the church "immediately went into action," said Diane Brown. The couple helped distribute sorely needed hygiene kits in stricken areas. Later, when their area of India were hit by major flooding that destroyed crops. wiping out not only immediate supplies but prospects for the future, the couple was involved in getting 60-pound bags of seeds to 1,175 families to provide not only food for themselves, but for cash crops to support other needs. Part of their ongoing charge as missionaries was helping to dig wells to provide clean drinking water. In one instance, the couple served in a location where very cold temperatures were common, contributing to the deaths of babies. Local authorities (who had been critical of the church) asked for help in preventing the untimely infant deaths. Church donations of woolen caps and blankets for the babies made a huge difference in the death rate.

Lauren Truman, Golden Colo., and her conference companion Thomas Wall, New York, now both BYU students, both had been involved in welfare projects before leaving for missions. She worked in a church cannery near her home in Colorado, canning potatoes as a ward assignment and never wondering particularly at the time where they would go. He was part of a project to assemble hygiene kits while in a missionary training center. After spending two years in Paraguay, he said, he had a better appreciation for the very real needs that are met through the church welfare programs.

Annie Banza, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, emigrated to the United States 11 years ago. "We had no money, no jobs, nothing. I would go to my Relief Society president and she would take me to the bishop's storehouse so I could get help for my family. It is an inspired program, a great blessing." The temporary help aided Banza and her husband in improving their lives. She became a nurse and was able to assist her sister, Pamela Muyanna, in coming to the United States two years ago. And life for the Banza's 9-year-old daughter Cynthia, likely never will be so challenging.

Mark Olsen, 12, of Bend, Ore., was attending the Sunday afternoon session in a family tradition that provides a Salt Lake conference opportunity to new priesthood holders. He proved that the welfare experience begins early. With his Boy Scout group, he had distributed empty bags in his neighborhood and returned to gather up donations that would aid needy area residents. He also helped plan, prepare and serve a meal to homeless in the Bethlehem Inn homeless shelter in Bend. As a bonus, one of those who were fed later joined the church, he said.

Tuafono Sheppard and Graham O'Brien of the Tongan ward in Seattle, Wash., said leaders in their area had focused on family preparedness. "That has been very important to us," Sheppard said. Every ward and every family has been contacted and assisted in preparing for any potential emergency. Although the Seattle area has not experienced any significant natural disasters, O'Brien said, the readiness was invaluable when winter storms caused disruptions in normal living. Those who were prepared were able to assist those who lacked the essentials for a short period, he said. The long-standing custom of donating fast offerings also assures that those in need will be provided for, Sheppard said.

Laura Carcona-Kaestner, who was born in Guatemala, moved to San Diego as an 11-year-old and filled a mission on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, said she particularly liked opportunities to speak to visitors at the church's Welfare Square facilities. "They were shocked at what the church does, its quiet service," she said. She also said she is grateful for the services that have been provided in her native land of Guatemala in times of need. An aunt who had not been active in the church for many years was severely affected when floods created havoc in her area, Carcona-Kaestner said. The aunt's disaffection from the church was never an issue in the effort to meet the needs she and others in her area had. "We must always find way to help members and nonmembers."