WEST JORDAN, Utah — The boys and girls who attend West Ridge Academy are there for different, difficult reasons.
Some have acted out as the result of a trying family situation; others have behavioral issues. Some have been involved with drugs and alcohol.
The Mormon missionaries at the school who provide them spiritual tutoring, however, all have the same motivation — love.
"We find so much love," said Sister Sandra Webb, who along with her husband, Richard, has been serving at the nonprofit private school for five months.
Ken Allen, the academy's director, said the missionaries' role is pivotal in the reformation of the boys and girls who attend West Ridge Academy.
"They're one of the keys in getting their heart to change," Allen said. "We believe that change happens from the inside out."
Eleven service missionaries meet with the school's students on a volunteer, weekly basis. The couples have their own offices at one of the West Jordan school's two campuses where they plan half-hour lessons intended to "reach every boy (and girl) spiritually," Sister Lory Wollenzien said.
Most of the time, it's the missionaries who are most affected, they say. For them, it's not about clinical study and methodical analysis.
For people like the Wollenziens, the Mearses, the Webbs, the Biesingers and the Merrills, it's about love — for a God whom they believe can change people, and for young people who are there to be changed.
The missionaries pull scriptures and principles from the Book of Mormon and Bible for Latter-day Saint teens attending the school. For students belonging to other faiths, they take scriptures only from the Bible. They're not there to proselytize, Allen said. They're there to teach Christian-based principles and be a person to turn to.
"Because our kids know unconditionally that someone loves them, they never feel alone," Allen said.
All the missionaries describe their role as being surrogate grandparents.
That includes having little glass dishes full of candy in their offices and snacks and treats in the fridge. It includes hugs, kind words and encouragement.
"We feel like the most important thing that we probably do of all the things we do is that we just acknowledge them and love them," Wollenzien said. She and her husband, Ivan, are the school's head missionaries.
That love is unconditional, said Sister Sharon Mears. Regardless of the attitudes or anger issues the young people might bring to the missionaries' offices, nothing gets in the way of their endearment, she said.
"You almost instantly fall in love with them," said Elder Edwin Mears, who with his wife works on the school's campus for girls. "It surprised me how quickly."
Some of the missionaries have served missions before, like the Merrills. They had just gotten home from one mission across the country and were ready to sell their home and put in their papers for another mission. That's when their children interceded, saying they needed them closer to their Utah home. So the Merrills applied for a local mission, and the result has been a "privilege," Sister Cheryl Merrill, said.
"It's just a fulfillment of a dream to be working with these boys," she said. "They're keeping us young. They rejuvenate us every day."
Many are former teachers or principals, and all have experience raising children.
Webb said friends and associates often have misconceptions about the environment they work in and the nature of the young people they help.
"The first thing they ask us is, 'Well, aren't you in fear, working out there?' And it's such a common question, but there is no fear," she said. "I can be walking with a boy and they'll let me hold onto them when it's icy. There's no fear working with the boys."
Sister Bonnie Biesinger said she and her husband sometimes forget the girls' challenges because they seem so much like their own grandchildren.
The Wollenziens have been serving at the school for more than 17 months and in that time have seen changes of heart and formed lasting relationships with some of the young men they work with.
Lory Wollenzien remembers the way one boy would smile when she teased him about being her bodyguard. She remembers his dimples, and tears up when she recalls the moment one boy from a very strained family background asked if he could call her "Mom." She fondly reflects on a boy who "played the bagpipes beautifully." She lets young men win at rummy cube, draws pictures for others and gives Glenn Beck DVDs to the boys who graduate.
It's people like the Wollenziens who are able to show the boys and girls affection or take them out of the facility on weekends, Allen said.
Ivan Wollenzien took one young man on a three-day mule trip, and takes other students snowboarding and skiing — opportunities they may have never had before. They help them with their Eagle Scout projects, go to their basketball games and invite them into their homes for the holidays — even after they've graduated.
They just try to be a positive influence during "a negative time of (the teenagers') lives," Edwin Mears said. "(And) as you get to know the girls (and boys) … and realize what they've gone through that's gotten them here in the first place, you begin to empathize with them and some of the problems they have. And then you come to love them even more."