‘The story that I’m going to tell … is my story’: Cherish Families helps former FLDS church members thrive

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop joins Cherish Families founder Shirlee Draper as she discusses how her nonprofit helps former FLDS Church members thrive, St. George, Utah, Nov. 4, 2021 | Photo by Sarah Torribio, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Republican Women recently announced their spotlight charity for the year. The group will lend its support to Colorado City-based Cherish Families, an organization aimed at helping people from a polygamous background move forward and thrive.

Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop joins Cherish Families founder Shirlee Draper as she discusses how her nonprofit helps former FLDS church members thrive, St. George, Utah, Nov. 4, 2021 | Photo by Sarah Torribio, St. George News

Shirlee Draper, director of operations for Cherish Families, spoke to attendees at the WCRW meeting at the Abbey Inn in St. George about the organization’s efforts to assist people raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Draper started by telling a couple stories about people whose lives have been transformed with the aid of Cherish Families; however, she said she tends to be cautious when it comes to sharing personal anecdotes about the nonprofit’s clients.

“One of the things that we struggle with as an organization – and I think most social service nonprofits do – is the temptation to exploit people and traffic in misery,” Draper said. “And so the story that I’m going to tell this morning is my story.”  

Draper was raised in Colorado City, Arizona, as a member of the FLDS church. She was brought up in a loving family and in a community she says was far more progressive than it would later become under Warren Jeffs. She was placed in an arranged marriage and had four children, two of whom have disabilities.  

Draper’s husband later married her younger sister. The sister-wife arrangement may seem unusual to people unfamiliar with polygamous culture, but she said it proved invaluable. Draper had to spend long periods of time out of town when her special needs children were hospitalized, and it was heartening to know her other kids were being raised by a loving second mother. It’s this pitch-in-and-help aspect of the FLDS church that Draper remembers fondly.  

“I was raised in a village, and that is obviously something that I miss, having a village for my children, in the worst way,” she said. 

Everything changed when Warren Jeffs rose to power, Draper said. He first became counselor to his ailing father, FLDS church leader Rulon Jeffs. After Rulon Jeffs’ death in 2004, his son became head of the denomination. 

“He started closing down our schools and making all of our choices for us and making it so we couldn’t say certain words,” Draper said. “I could just see this thing going off the rails so badly. And I thought, ‘I need to get out of here. I want my kids to have education.’ Because it was so important to me.”

Draper said she felt hamstrung in that she owned “literally nothing.”

“I didn’t have a job. I had no income,” she said. “I had no credit history. I had no rental history. And I couldn’t figure out how I’m going to take four kids under the age of 10 out into the big bad world that I’d heard so much about all my life and support them and be safe.” 

Draper’s confusion was compounded by the chilly reception she had faced whenever leaving the Short Creek area, which includes the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, to come to St. George. 

“Because I looked like one of those ‘plygs,’” Draper said, using the derogatory slang term for polygamists, “I was treated with a lot of hostility. And so for six years I kind of did this little dance: ‘I’ve got to keep my head down, I’ve got to keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to get kicked out before I have a chance to take care of myself.’”

Along with facing logistical problems, Draper said she was terrified of the fallout she knew would accompany an escape. It seemed insurmountable knowing that when she left she was going to leave all of her friends and family.

A reluctant role model

 By 2004, Draper had saved enough money to rent a place in St. George. 

“I was thinking, ‘Move to New York, change your name, never look back, don’t tell anyone who you are and just have a life,’” she said, then joked, “I should have done it.” 

But her past came knocking before she could leave it all behind. 

Shirlee Draper describes the challenges she faced leaving the FLDS Church, with four children in tow, at the November meeting of the Washington County Republican Women, St. George, Utah, Nov. 4, 2021| photo by Sarah Torribio, St. George News

“People from my hometown started coming and finding me, saying, ‘How did you make that work? I need help.’ So I started putting them on my couch and looking for services,” Draper said. 

She found some organizations, generally faith-based, willing to provide resources to former FLDS church members but was appalled by their tactics. 

They were “putting people on the news and … forcing them to say horrible things about their families and saying, ‘Look at the good things we’re doing because we’ve turned this person into someone else.’”

Draper, who has since earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in public administration, was convinced at the time that former FLDS church members deserved better. She says people whose lives were completely controlled by Jeffs and then upended by his 2007 arrest need help from someone culturally sensitive and “trauma-informed.” 

With this in mind, she founded Cherish Families in 2014. In 2018, the organization moved into its first headquarters. The building, which has since been renovated, is ironically where Jeffs used to publish his revelations.  

Hildale, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Virtually all of the nonprofit’s 17 advocates are former FLDS church members. The FLDS church was never confined to Short Creek. Draper said Cherish Families serves people throughout North America, including people from polygamous backgrounds in Canada, Mexico and 18 states. 

She said there are enormous needs among people who have left or are looking to leave the FLDS church. In many cases, it means literally starting from scratch. 

Draper shared a small victory underscoring the unique hurdles faced by former fundamentalists. Jeffs banned parents from officially documenting the births of their children. She said a Cherish Families advocate had called earlier that morning to announce that, after a weeks-long effort, a judge had finally signed off on the final birth certificates for a large family.

“We do have a plan, a big plan,” Draper said. “It’s not just throwing things at people. It’s not like, you’re hungry, here’s some food.” 

Cherish Families provides an array of services, including those addressing immediate needs like food and shelter, but legal and mental health support is also available for families in crisis. The nonprofit also focuses on the kind of assistance that makes for sustainable change. This includes job training, access to jobs and education and classes in financial literacy and life skills like parenting and nutrition. 

Draper said mental health services remain by far the greatest need. She said former FLDS church members, especially men, face a lot of stress and depression. 

“We have a suicide at least monthly, sometimes a couple times a month,” she said.  

Despite such tragedies, Draper gathers hope from the successes that are becoming just as common. She shared a story of a former FLDS church member who was living in Arizona. 

When the woman discovered that her children, who were being raised by her teenaged step-sister, were being abused, she reached out to Cherish Families. Their legal experts helped her get custody of her children and provided her with services meant to help her become self-sufficient. She now lives in Colorado City where she has a job and owns her own home.   

“The family is doing great,” Draper said. “Over the years, our demand has really increased. The number of services has far outpaced the amount of money we have received. But we are so, so grateful to do this. Helping families become stable is such a huge accomplishment.” 

For more information about Cherish Families, visit the organization’s website

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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