In early 1988, William Sheffield, then the Church's legal counsel in Asia, walked into a small, two-room house in Madras, India.
But he wasn't sure why he was there.He was on assignment in the country and had been urged by a colleague to make a detour to a small orphanage for disabled children in the southeastern coastal city of more than 3 million. That day, standing on a dirt floor with dozens of wide-eyed children watching, he visited with the orphanage's director, Dr. A.D.S.N. Prasad.
The visit changed Brother Sheffield's life and, consequently, the lives of hundreds - potentially thousands.
Today, through the private efforts and donations of Brother Sheffield and other members of the Church, the two-room house has been replaced by a three-story, 9,000-square-foot building. Above the front entry to the facility hangs a bronze plaque, which reads: "Given in love to the children of south India by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"Pathway," the name of the new, modern facility, is home to about 100 developmentally and physically disabled children and youth, ages 3 to 18. In addition, some 200 disabled children and young people visit the center daily for therapy and vocational training from Pathway's growing staff. The center also includes a free medical and dental clinic, which serves not only the orphanage but also the surrounding area, and elementary education is offered to children living in nearby shanty huts. And, thanks to the donation of a businessman in India, a bus has even been acquired to transport disabled children to and from Pathway.
In addition, in about a year a new facility will open some 60 miles from Madras, said Brother Sheffield, a member of the Capistrano 2nd Ward, Laguna Niguel California Stake. "It will train disabled orphans how to farm. The agricultural facility will care for 500 disabled orphans at a time.
"They will grow all sorts of vegetables, fruits and flowers," Brother Sheffield explained. "It is also the intention that the farm will have a self-contained school and hospital. At the present time, the land has been purchased and dedicated. Construction is expected to begin within the next few months after sufficient funding has been acquired."
Speaking of the blessings of giving and receiving, Brother Sheffield related: "Every time I speak with Dr. Prasad, he is very grateful. But as I tell him, the privileges and blessings have been all mine. The experience of really being able to serve where you can is so inherently rewarding that you're always the unprofitable servant. Whatever you do in some small way to help somebody always comes back to you, multiplied."
"Multiplied" is a good way to describe the progress of this project. Some 300 LDS members, mainly from California, have joined others in opening their hearts to the children of Pathway. Some have even spent weeks living at the orphanage - working in up to 120-degree heat alongside Dr. Prasad, a speech pathologist; and Pathway staff members. Those offering their time and resources to Pathway have included LDS doctors and dentists, university students and others.
Brother Sheffield said he "shudders to think" of the missed opportunity had he not made that first visit a decade ago. He remembers during an early visit finding Dr. Prasad with "his head in is hands. He was feeling very despondent. He told me had been praying for God's help in enlarging the quarters. `We need a bigger building,' he said. `I have the land, but I envision a multi-story building. I don't know how we're going to do it.' "
The way came in the form of a banana slicer.
Brother Sheffield said that while praying for a way to help he envisioned a plastic banana slicer that was eventually designed, manufactured and sold through a U.S. fruit supply company. Profits from the slicer, along with donations from members, led to the building of the new Pathway facility and its dedication July 23, 1994. Attending the dedication was Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy, then Asia Area president; and R. Venkataram, the former president of India.
In speaking recently with the Church News, Elder Carmack called Church members' involvement in Pathway a "wonderful humanitarian project" and described the orphanage as having "enormous potential for good."
Elder John H. Groberg, also of the Seventy and current Asia Area president, described Pathway as "a wonderful opportunity for our members to do something to help others. It's what life is all about - helping others."
And helping others has definitely impacted the lives of those involved with Pathway.
One life forever changed is that of Dr. Richard Wheatfill, an LDS dentist, also of the Capistrano 2nd Ward. During a telephone interview, he told, with emotion in his voice, of the two months in 1996 that he spent setting up the dental clinic at Pathway and training the dentist working there.
Ironically, according to physicians in California, Dr. Wheatfill shouldn't even be physically able to practice dentistry today. In October 1991, he was hit head-on by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. Several times, he was clinically dead and spent three weeks in a coma. But a priesthood blessing promised him a full recovery, something doctors said wouldn't happen.
"One of the reasons I feel my life was spared and my faculties returned to me was to participate in going to India," he said. He worked 12- and 13-hour days setting up the clinic and teaching oral hygiene to Pathway children and staff. Today, the clinic receives 10 to 15 patients per day, many being local residents, as well as Pathway patients.
A poignant memory of his is a scared little Indian boy sitting in the dental chair. "I was able to calm him down. I put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a hug. He was my advocate after that. He was able to spread the word, so to speak, that Dr. Wheatfill is OK."
Trisha Franks of the Laguna Niguel 2nd Ward, Laguna Niguel California Stake, is another member impacted by Pathway. "Little did I know that what I'd learn was that the service project was for me," she said, speaking of the blessings the orphanage has brought to her life. "The hospitality, kindness and uninhibited display of genuine compassion for me and those around me were so impactful that I will carry vivid memories of it."
Sister Franks, who is involved in fund-raising for Pathway, recalled: "I believe the most touching moments I experienced while staying at Pathway involved seeing how the Prasads love those children as if each and every one are their own. And then, to see the children love one another in this way demonstrates how these actions become part of an eternal round, in which we are all a part."
Pamela Martinez, who is in the same ward as Brother Sheffield, was the ward Primary president when she first visited Pathway in 1994. She said she will never forget the children there presenting a religious pageant. The next year she returned and the orphanage put on another pageant, and this time neighborhood children were invited to attend.
"It was overwhelming to me," she recalled. She said she and others at Pathway of various faiths worked together filling stainless steel bowls with crackers and candy as gifts for visiting children. They ended up giving out some 200 bowls filled with the treats.
"It was incredible," Sister Martinezd said, speaking of giving out the presents. "They are a joyful people. They have smiles in their eyes."
And they, in turn, have given smiles to hundreds of Latter-day Saints.