Recently, while participating in a new Self-Reliance Initiative Course, I met a wonderful young woman who had a remarkable story to tell—a story of mercy and grace, friendship and connection, redemption and second chances. With her permission, I share her story with you here:
Welcome, Rachel! A recent initiative has been gaining a lot of attention—the Self-Reliance Initiative. Will you share with us what you know about the Initiative?
For the last 3 months I have been attending the self-reliance initiative every Sunday evening for about two hours. It has been great! I was definitely hesitant at first. I was one that was never good at school. So the thought of sitting down in a class with a teacher classroom scenario was intimidating. Or having to do homework and be tested on papers was scary, but I have to tell you it was none of those things.
So if the courses are not your typical “classroom setting” courses, what exactly are they like?
At the first initial meeting, we were able to choose between one of the four groups provided [Starting and Growing a Business, Personal Finances, Finding a Better Job, or Education for Better Work]. We met with everyone assigned in our group and decided where it was that we wanted to meet. I know some groups met at the chapel, but one of the members [in our group] kindly volunteered his home. We all sat around the dinner table and had our discussion. No teacher, just a group facilitator that volunteered to take the lead to keep us all on track in the manual and to make us feel comfortable sharing ideas, successes and even failures. No tests, no homework. Just a manual.
What exactly took place during the weekly meetings?
Each week we discussed the outline for that chapter. And we graded ourselves on how we felt we did that week. Simply yellow, green or red. I loved our facilitator who, from the start, made it very clear that even attempting to do one of the things on our list deserved a green. That was very encouraging. Each week we chose a different person to check in with, aka “accountabilibuddy”. Again, not someone who is taking tabs on you. More or less someone to call/text or even meet up with if desired and just see how we are both doing. And you change it up each week.
What were some of the subjects you discussed in your Personal Finances group?
Many of the chapters seemed like they were rudimentary. Tithing for example. I thought, “There is a whole chapter on tithing?” You pay 10%— I didn’t think that was too hard of a concept to grasp. But let me tell you, that chapter was very enlightening as it made me look at tithing in a way I never really thought of before. So that was pretty cool! It went on to discuss creating and sticking to a budget, protecting our families from hardship, understanding debt, managing financial crises, and investing for the future, to name a few. Each week we had a new topic and someone volunteered to bring snacks. That was almost the best part!
What was your favorite thing about this course?
I would have to say my favorite part was checking in with my selected “accountabilibuddy”. I was able to meet and get to know so many warm, wonderful, tender spirits, not just in the ward [smaller geographical location] but in the whole stake [larger geographical location]. To me that was pretty cool. One sweet sister, I have seen now many times just walking by each other in the hall at church. Even once in the temple! We got to greet and hug each other. If it wasn’t for this group, we wouldn’t had known one another to recognize each other. That is such a treat to be able to run into someone with a smile and [have them be] so happy to see you! The more you get out and are involved, the more people you meet and are able to connect with. So cool!
Can you share more about the personal connections you made within your group?
One of my favorites was meeting up with a sister at the park. I remember seeing her at the first meeting and thinking to myself, “Wow, that lady looks like she has everything all together.” [I] found her almost intimidating, because I knew that my life was still a mess even though I have been trying my best to get it all together. By the time we had our meet up we had already been going to our group for a couple months and she had shared some things in group that made me feel comfortable enough to tell her more about my struggles. She told me when she first saw me she thought, “Wow, look at this girl with pretty hair, and no ring on her finger. Things must be pretty easy for her.”
What was your response when you learned about her first impression of you?
I laughed when she [shared it with me]. And then [I] shared how only 4 years ago I suffered a sub-dural hematoma (fancy term for brain bleed) causing me to be airvac-ed to [a hospital] for an emergency brain surgery. After a couple days the first surgery did not take and they had to open my head back up for a second one. I woke up some weeks later and my head was bald with a dozen staples in it. They never really found where the bleeding was coming from or what caused it. One could only imagine it was brought on by unhealthy living standards. I was divorced, suffering from addiction of self-medicating with substance abuse and drinking…The lady I was speaking to proceeded to tell me what she was going through. Afterwards, we were both shocked. Both of us, having been raised in the church, had the same line of thinking.
“I thought my whole life that everyone else was perfect and my family was the only one who wasn’t.” I mean literally we both had just figured out recently that EVERYONE has problems—not just us, and that no one is perfect.
Tell us more about this recent discovery of yours.
[This is] still a hard concept to grasp because for so long we suffered alone, worried about what other people would say about us–so afraid of being judged, or afraid of others being spiteful and mean. Now come to think of it, why is it that so often we are taught to not talk about things or say anything, because we don’t want people gossiping about us?
How was your recovery from brain surgery?
After my brain surgery I had lost the mobility to the left side of my body—my arm and my leg. I could hardly walk. I was a 6 on a scale from 1-30 of being a fall risk. Not good at all. One would think that such a thing happening would make someone clean up their lives. But for me it made it worst. I couldn’t walk and I was bald. Severe headaches and speech problems. I gained weight and lost any motivation for life. I was afraid to leave my house and was diagnosed with agoraphobia. I was afraid to leave my house, I had almost died! Until someone pointed out that, Rachel, you almost died when you were in your house!”
Good point! Anyways, things were looking bleak for me. I thought, I was no good, broken and finally I had an excuse that proved it. I had had brain surgery! I can’t amount to anything at all. I can’t walk, so that is my excuse [for not working] or doing anything. Finally, I had an excuse for why I wasn’t good enough. But after a couple years living a life of nothing, that is exactly what I had… nothing.
At what point in your life did you begin to make changes for the better?
Luckily for me I was born of goodly parents. Especially from a very young age they taught me the gospel and just how important being a member of this church truly is. My father was not a wealthy man, I did not get inheritance when he passed away, but knowing this, he bore his testimony to me as many times possible. I will always remember my dad instilling in me that “this church is true”. He knew that the most important sense of worth he could give me is knowing the gospel [is true] beyond all measure.
Granted, I did lose my way for quite a long while, but through a series of very fortunate events my mother got me in touch with the church again and I was given the opportunity to get into a rehab program that I lived at for 9 months.
What was your rehab experience like?
I had tried to go through rehab by myself four other times in the past and I never made it beyond the detox stage before I relapsed. This 5th time I was blessed to go in 2016 and am sober until this very day. The only thing I have done differently now is that I am not doing it by myself; I get on my knees every day and I pray. In the morning I ask, “Please Heavenly Father, give me strength” and I thank him for giving me another day to try and do better. At the end of the day I am on my knees saying, “Thank you for getting me through this day.” And I pray as often as I can throughout the day as well.
What is your life like now?
Since getting sober nothing but great things have been happening for me. The members in my [church] and their generosity have been tender mercies for me, leaving me speechless. In my case, it literally has “taken a village.”
What advice do you have for others who are going through a difficult time?
Life is really hard. And nothing is harder than admitting we are not very good at something, especially if we fear that we are going to be judged for it. I feel like sometimes people want to make you feel bad to make themselves feel better. Gossiping is the most dangerous addiction of them all. It is the easiest to do, and it makes you feel really good when you’re doing it, giving you a false sense of camaraderie. But it is the fastest way to lose the spirit and probably the most deadly of them all. And if you think you have to win your way into heaven by beating someone else then heaven is going to be an awfully lonely place. And that is not what God has intended for us.
We gain strength in numbers. I think Satan is trying to single us out to keep power over us and wants to make us feel alone to scare us. You know when you cast light on something small and it creates this big scary shadow? I have a feeling when we are through the veil and we see Satan he is going to be this little itty bitty thing trying to single us out and keep the power of God away from us.
In what ways does “strength in numbers” relate to your self-reliance class?
Man is not meant to be alone. We are supposed to learn how to work as a team. I win when we all win. We are in this together not alone. I don’t think that is what self-reliance means. That’s why in whatever initiative you choose, we meet in groups, all together, no one better than the other. Just us convening to bring what we have to the table.
Prime example, at work, I can tend to get pretty down comparing myself to others. Like I said, I was not good in school, I do not have a degree. I work with some pretty accomplished well educated people. There was a big project last week that the executive assistant was working on with all sorts of graphs and reports—well past my level of comprehension. She, however, could not get the labels printed out right on the dividers but thought the presentation was good enough because all the information was there and was good. But in fact, our boss wasn’t quite as okay with it. The assistant, frustrated because she couldn’t get these labels to print, shrieked, “Rachel! Help me!” I went and was able to get the labels she needed printed out. (Only because I had battled with that copier for over a year now, so I knew its quirks.) But then finally the report was complete and our boss was pleased. We were all happy. At first, I could’ve just gone on with my pity party that I wasn’t so smart. But I instead just did what I could and helped where I was needed. That was a good day!
It’s been said to not compare your weaknesses to other people’s strengths, that “It’s our choices far more than our abilities that make us who we are”, and “It’s not where you serve, it’s how you serve.”
We all have a something to bring to the table. Even if it’s just making the labels. Don’t get caught up in the game of comparison. It truly is the thief of joy.
Do you have any closing thoughts to share?
I will close by sharing my experience when I received a blessing by a member of the Seventy [a leadership role in our church]. I told him about my brain bleed and my handicaps and in his blessing he asked that I would be healed fully and that I would be able to walk again. Some people might take that as, “Great! I can sit back doing nothing but wait to be healed because He asked that I be healed, so I should sit back and wait for the miracle!” But no, I was more ecstatic when I heard his words because I knew that our faith is one that is based on actions, and that I can only do so much, but as long as I do the very best that I can, living by his commandments, God will make up the difference. If you give nothing, then nothing times nothing is… nothing. But God is SO great he takes whatever the best is that you can do, even if it is just a little and makes a miracle out of it.
After my blessing, I immediately bought leashes for my dogs, and we go for walks. I go to the park every night and do the exercises the doctors told me to do. At first I could only walk around the block, then a couple blocks, and I kept adding a couple more streets as my stamina increased. And now I went from a 6 up to a 28 of being fall risk in just this last year alone.
How have others contributed to your remarkable physical and spiritual progress?
God keeps putting people in my life that help me, by the places I go and the people I talk to. Life is truly a “participation sport”. When God instructed for us to endure to the end, that does not mean that you have to be perfect, it just means He wants you to die trying to be.
If, after listening to all this, you still feel like you have to put on airs, Brothers and Sisters, I really wish you wouldn’t. In these latter days with social media the way that it is, life is so hard and we need each other now more than ever. Every one of us in this room has survived something or is currently [dealing with] something right now. Some just has more visible scars than others. We [each] just have to do something.
What role can a self-reliance course play in our lives as we deal with daily challenges?
By participating in one of these initiative groups that our church leaders have been inspired for us to do, it is simply doing something at no cost to you (other than the $4 dollars for the manual) towards whatever your end goal may be.
If you still think there is nothing that you can take away from one of these initiatives then I implore you to still go to one. It would be a wonderful service opportunity for you to be a part of because there will be someone there that would love your advice and guidance.
Again, I bear my testimony that I love this gospel. It was made for imperfect people like me. I know that it is true beyond all doubt. God uses each one of us to bless others and answer their prayers. I promise you that whatever little fish or loaf of bread you bring to the crowd he will feed thousands.
I thank and love God and I love Jesus and I love [all those who have been] my village.
Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your remarkable and inspiring story with us.
To hear more Self-Reliance Initiative participant testimonials, visit https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/testimonials-and-stories?lang=eng .