23 Feb 2009

Nonprofit group formed to help polygamists makes its debut

Deseret News - Utah February 22, 2009

by Ben Winslow

WEST JORDAN — It was detente over a chicken dinner.
Polygamists, ex-polygamists, activists, lawyers and government officials were all in the same room Saturday night, supporting the newest organization to reach out to offer help to people in Utah's cloistered polygamous communities. A fundraiser gala at Gardner Village drew nearly 200 people for the debut of Holding Out HELP (Helping, Encouraging and Loving Polygamists).
"People from all walks of life are here," said executive director Tonia Tewell, as she stood in a crowded room where a debate for or against polygamy would be conspicuously absent from the evening's festivities.
Tewell launched the group after sheltering a couple of women and four children who were leaving a bad situation in polygamy. Speaking to the crowd, one of those women (who asked her name not be used) said everyone's situation is different.
"In the midst of my own crisis, my own heart went out to those from other polygamous communities who are struggling," she said. "Maybe they just need a listening ear or a nonjudgmental heart. Maybe they wish to leave but can't for a variety of reasons. As I see the faces of the people I left behind in my polygamous community, I have no desire to hurt them. I just wish that I am able to help them in any way I am able to. I don't resent them."

Holding Out HELP is unique in its mission to offer help and support services for people who want to leave as well as those who want to stay.
"We aren't getting in the debate of for or against polygamy," Tewell said. "We're coming alongside them where they are at and loving them where they are at."
It is a mission supported by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who embraced the group as part of his much-touted Safety Net Committee, a coalition of activists, polygamists, government officials and social service agencies working to combat abuse and neglect in isolated polygamous communities.
Many polygamists are wary of Shurtleff, despite his assurances that he doesn't have the resources to prosecute polygamy alone — but will instead focus on crimes like abuse and underage marriages.
"We're going to keep fighting crime in certain groups," he told the crowd Saturday. "But we realize that (victims) have to fear me less than their abuser if they're ever going to seek help."
Since starting up, Holding Out HELP has already been contacted by a couple of families seeking assistance. Tewell said she's actively searching for people willing to open their homes and wallets to her cause.
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