12 May 2008

Lending a hand to children of polygamy

The Globe & Mail - Canada
May 12, 2008

by Robert Matas

VANCOUVER -- Stefanie Colgrove thought it would be "cool" if she could collect a few books and start a lending library at her home in Colorado City, Ariz., a city dominated by members of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

She never imagined her little project would stir the imagination of people - in Utah, Arizona, California and beyond into Canada - who see the library as an opportunity to open up a community that has shut out the world. She received thousands of books days after talking about her idea at a meeting on polygamy.

"I'm amazed how far it has gone," Ms. Colgrove, the great-granddaughter of former Lethbridge MP John Blackmore, said late last week in a telephone interview from Colorado City.

The library project, begun early this year, attracted international attention following a raid of the Texas compound of the FLDS in early April. Child-protection workers apprehended more than 400 children at the compound on evidence of child abuse and a pervasive pattern of grooming young girls for underage sex.

Current plans call for a full-service library with computers for a community that includes many self-educated people who have been told to stay away from television and the Internet, Kathy McGehee, of the Mohave County library district, said in an interview from Kingman, Ariz.

"They have been so isolated," Ms. McGehee said. "It will open the world to people who have never been exposed to this before, those born and raised there who have never been out, especially those in the Warren Jeffs group," she said.

Mr. Jeffs is currently in prison, serving a 10-years-to-life sentence for being an accomplice to rape for performing a religious ceremony in Utah that forced a 14-year-old girl to "marry" a 19-year-old man. Also, he has been charged in Arizona with incest and sexual conduct with a minor. He will be in court on a preliminary matter later this week.

Despite the criminal charges, a new church leader has not yet claimed the allegiance of the members. The extent of how much continuing control over the church Mr. Jeffs has from prison is unclear.

Many of those living at the Texas compound at the time of the raid came from Colorado City following a crackdown on FLDS in Arizona. Before the attack on polygamy-related crimes, Mr. Jeffs had been head of a multimillion-dollar trust that owned businesses and most of the property in Colorado City, population 10,000. His influence was also felt in the city's public-school system. Student enrolment dropped by 85 per cent in 2000 after Mr. Jeffs told his followers to withdraw their children and switch to home schooling.

Mr. Jeffs closed the Colorado City library shortly after succeeding his father, Rulon Jeffs, in 2002 as the so-called prophet of FLDS. He had people do away with their books, Ms. Colgrove said.

"He took things that helped people gain knowledge and put them away. He wanted them to read what he wanted them to read, and to think what he wanted them to think," she said.

Ms. Colgrove believes Mr. Jeffs still retains influence over the affairs of the church even though he remains in prison. On his instructions, FLDS families continue to move to more secluded areas in the United States, abandoning their homes in Colorado City, she said.

Ms. Colgrove, 38, was raised in a polygamous family living in Colorado City but left the community in the 1980s and has been in a monogamous marriage for 15 years. Last year, she moved into one of the abandoned houses in Colorado City.

A group called Friends of the Colorado City Library was formed in late April. Mohave County officials are to consider a proposal to turn an old school building into the library later this month. If the scheme is approved, the library group will be required to raise money for the building. The county will supply books, shelves and pay for a full-time librarian to set up the collection.

Ms. Colgrove first mentioned the idea of a small lending library in her house during a discussion on polygamy at a meeting in Salt Lake City, before the raid in Texas. "The response was so enthusiastic that I got over 4,000 books so I had to rethink my plan," she said.

The scheme jumped the border when Nancy Mereska of Two Hills, Alta., 160 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, circulated a news release in late April to her online network promoting the new library.

"I sent out the word that a public library is being opened in Colorado City. I was thrilled. It means that children of polygamy can be helped," Ms. Mereska, a former member of the mainstream Mormon church, said in an interview. Ms. Mereska contributed $50 and challenged those on the network to match her.

"Dig into your pockets, folks. Dig deep," she wrote in her e-mail. "The more these kids learn, the more we won't have to be screaming about their abuse and bound minds."

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