Last Sunday we went to my parent's house for dinner. Everything tastes better when you don't have to cook! Plus my parents always serve a main dish and about 14 side dishes. I am not exaggerating....Michelle back me up on this one!
My nephew, James is serving a family history mission here in Salt Lake City. It is a pilot program for young men and women with either physical or mental disabilities that otherwise would not have an opportunity to go on a mission. James is PPDNOS, but to make it simple, it falls under the umbrella of autism. He was at the dinner with one of his roommates. The young man, whom I will call Elder Smith, spent quite a long time telling me about his life. He struggles with facial tics and a stutter, but communicates quite well. I mean no disrespect by repeating his story, but I found it quite impressive and was touched that he would just volunteer this information. (People just tell me stuff.)
He was born at 28 weeks in Kentucky. He weighed only 2 pound 4 oz. It is a miracle that he lived - but amazingly that fact has not been his biggest trial. His mother soon discovered that his father was beating him. She thought the bumps and bruises were from normal baby/toddler activity, until she caught him at it one day. She divorced him, but unfortunately became involved in drugs and alcohol addiction. After several years of neglect the state placed him in a series of foster homes. His grandparents had lost touch with their daughter and when the state removed Elder Smith from his mother's lack of care they were on a mission in Africa and were never contacted. When they returned from their mission, they decided to try and contact their daughter again and discovered that Elder Smith had been in foster care.
Through the assistance of LDS social services, they were able to gain guardianship and eventually full custody of Elder Smith and bring him to Salt Lake. He was a pretty angry person by that time. His grandparents tried to encourage him to come to church, but he was too mad about all he had been through and felt like he already had life figured out. Soon he discovered that his father lived in West Valley and he tried to contact him. His father said that when he was 16 he could come and live with him. His grandparents were wary but decided to pursue setting up a supervised visitation schedule for Elder Smith and his father. The father rarely showed up for any of the visits - with each visit re-opening issues of abandonment and pain for Elder Smith.
As time went by, Elder Smith could see that the anger he had inside of him, although justified, was destroying the possibility of him becoming the type of person he really wanted to be. He prayed that he would be able to forgive and let go of all of the hurt he had inside. He said it was the first time he felt the Holy Ghost in his life. He went to his Grandmother and told her that she needed to forgive his parents, too. He told her that God wanted them to be able to move on with their lives, and the only way that would happen was to release the bitterness that he and his grandparents had been holding on to. His grandparents were impressed with his example and promised they would do their best.
After that life altering moment he decided he wanted to start attending church. He realized maybe he had a few things to learn and began to open up to the people around him. It was still very hurtful that his father would never follow through with any of his promises. His mother is off of drugs and living in Utah as well. He hopes that for his 21st birthday she will stop smoking, because he worries about her health. He said he has loved being on his mission because he made a great friend. One of his former roommates, who has since finished his mission, became a best friend to him. He said this was the first time someone his age looked at him without seeing what was wrong with him and loved learning all that the two of them had in common.
I was touched to learn that my parents had never seen him talk as much as he did to me, to anyone. I was amazed with all the challenges this young man has he has still found room in his life for forgiveness and hope.