SALT LAKE CITY — When Ali and Fatuma Yussuf escaped war-torn Somalia in 1999 with their young and growing family, headed for years in a Kenyan refugee camp, they weren't pining for a good-sized house and a tidy yard in South Salt Lake. But Thursday, they stood with their six kids in front of just such a home and accepted the keys from Habitat for Humanity. It's a dream built one 2-by-4 at a time with the help of dozens of strangers.
It's not a gift. They'll buy it at a very reasonable price, the down payment paid with more than 225 hours of their own time on the project. Along the way, they learned skills that will help them be great homeowners, says Habitat director Stephen Tagliaferri, from finance to simple home repair and how to be part of diverse communities.
The concept is "self-reliance," and it's the heart of many helping-hand programs that serve those with dire needs, from the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, to the fledgling steps of a Salt Lake area homeless outreach program.
It's not a new concept. In the Bible, the widow's mite was pleasing because, though she was poor, she contributed it to others. Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1830s thundered the call from his pulpit and in an essay by that name, calling for "staunch individualism."
Thursday afternoon on Welfare Square, Aaron Roberts was working at Deseret Industries, sorting items that had been donated. It's not his dream job; he hopes to go to college for some computer tech training. But it's filling a hole in his life in an economy where jobs are hard to come by. And he's hoping that his hard work will turn into one of the scholarships DI offers to help people further their education and get better jobs.
Lima Taloa came to the United States just six weeks ago from New Zealand. In the vast DI storage room not far from Roberts, she was sorting donated clothing. She, too, was training for a permanent job, perhaps as an office worker, she said.
"Here, we can hire someone for up to 18 months and help them get skills," said James Goodrich, group manager of Welfare Square. DI is much more than a second-hand store. For many, it's a second-chance store, complete with job training and encouragement and enough skill-building tools to help people find their footing. Some have disabilities, while others have lost jobs or struggle with other barriers that make meeting all their own needs hard.
Besides Deseret Industries, at Welfare Square there's an employment service, a storehouse where people can get food, and lots of other places where people can volunteer. In exchange for the help they receive, people are asked to volunteer at Welfare Square or elsewhere to help others.
Such programs link self-reliance and personal responsibility together like a time-tested married couple, each stronger because the other is nearby.
"First, everyone is happier and feels more self-respect when they can provide for themselves and their family and then reach out to take care of others," said President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency during the just-finished LDS General Conference. "I have been grateful for those who helped me meet my needs. And I have been ever more grateful over the years for those who helped me become self-reliant. And then I have been most grateful for those who showed me how to use some of my surplus to help others."
Definitions cross boundaries of faith and place and time. Experts agree that principles of self-reliance include living within your means, avoiding debt, preparing for emergencies, and figuring out the difference between wants and needs. It's the old saying that you can give a man to fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.
It's an LDS Church principle, said Silvia H. Allred, first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, that "short-term needs are met immediately and a plan to help the recipient become self-reliant is established. Self-reliance is the ability to provide the spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family."
People should turn first to their own resources, then to their families, before asking for help from the church or others.
Pamela Atkinson, well-known in Salt Lake as an advocate for the poor, likes to talk about a very special party she attended on St. Patrick's Day. It was thrown by the residents of Grace Mary Manor to recognize some of the volunteers who've been helping out there. Each of the residents was for a long time homeless. On this day, though, they arranged everything, including a little ceremony to say thanks.
"I sat there and watched," she said, "and I was reminded of the fact that everybody in that room, all the residents who had had such a hard life, were very much involved in what was happening there. And I thought how proud I was and how far they had come. I got a little choked up."
"I think self-reliance has a great deal to do with one's self-esteem and self-worth and one's sense of pride."
The question of personal responsibility, says Lloyd Pendleton of the Utah Homeless Task Force, "is a good one and is also a very middle-class achievement oriented question. It is one that our chronically homeless persons need to learn as they move into the employment world."
If you're helping someone become self-reliant — teaching skills, offering encouragement, opening doors — you have to meet people where they are, he noted. Many of the homeless, for instance, have mental health issues and have or had substance abuse issues, as well. The phrase "personal responsibility has different meaning for the various economic cultures. We want and expect these individuals to accept what they can do to the best of their abilities."
Adds John Selfridge, cases manager supervisor at Palmer Court, who is a licensed clinical social worker heavily involved in the employment efforts for the formerly chronically homeless, "the employment project attempts to create work opportunities for those who are disabled/mentally ill and therefore unable to work in the regular competitive market. Much like we have wheelchair ramps for those who can't walk due to a physical disability, we are creating tools such as limited hours, job coaches, jobs in familiar settings, for mentally ill people to be successful in their job. I've yet to meet a chronically homeless/disabled person who did not desire to support themselves. I've come across plenty of workers in agencies who deny clients this opportunity because the client doesn't fit perfectly into their current system."