WASHINGTON, Washington County — When someone leaves the polygamous towns on the Utah-Arizona border, one of the first "outsiders" they encounter is Elaine Tyler.
She has become known as the woman you go to if you need a place to stay, some clothes, diapers for your kids or money to keep your power from getting shut off at the end of the month.
"I didn't have a vehicle and she was running me around, taking me to the WIC office and the welfare division and taking me around trying to get me everything that I needed," said Ailene Runs Through, who left the polygamous community of Centennial Park, Ariz. "They helped me so much, I don't know if I can repay them."
Tyler runs The HOPE Organization, a nonprofit, ragtag group of volunteers who help people leaving polygamy. In the last few years, Tyler estimates the group has provided help for dozens of women, children and the so-called "Lost Boys" who have either fled or been kicked out of the polygamous communities of Hildale and Colorado City.
From a tiny office just outside the St. George city limits, she gathers resources together to help them survive in the outside world.
"We try to just cover their basic needs," Tyler said. "They're coming out with nothing. The Lost Boys are living out of cars. They need housing, and once they get into an apartment, they need the furnishings. They need the pots and pans, they need beds, they need sheets, they need towels. Right now they need a clothes dryer."
Runs Through claims she left an abusive relationship with a man after almost three years.
"He was a very controlling person, very jealous," she said. When her husband told her he wanted to take a plural wife, she objected. Runs Through said it took her a while to work up the courage to walk out.
"It was a really bad relationship, and after having a kid with the guy, I did not want my daughter to have to go through that," she said. She contacted authorities for help and was hooked up with The HOPE Organization. Tyler drove out to Centennial Park to help Runs Through move out.
"She left with her clothes, her daughter's clothes and her daughter's toys," Tyler said. "She had nothing."
Life outside of the polygamous communities hasn't been easy.
Runs Through works two jobs. Sitting down for an interview with the Deseret Morning News, she had on a waitress uniform. Shy and nervous, she picks at the keys to a beater car she got from The HOPE Organization.
"Ailene's car is a piece of junk," Tyler confesses. "It needs a lot of repairs. The air conditioning isn't working, it needs new rotors. It needs everything. We need some real money to spend $1,200 to buy something dependable and safe."
Still, The HOPE Organization has pulled off miracles. Tyler and her volunteers have gotten help from the local Catholic and Methodist churches to help provide clothing for people leaving the polygamist communities. They've collected care packages of food and toiletries, taken people grocery shopping and enrolled them in school.
Lately, Tyler has been helping the Lost Boys, hundreds of teenage boys who have been kicked out of the Fundamentalist LDS Church in Hildale and Colorado City for a host of unnamed "sins."
The HOPE Organization has helped find apartments and pay bills for Lost Boys who can't make it to the next paycheck. On this day, Tyler is waiting for a Lost Boy to come to her office so she can lend him some money to make his car payment.
"I told him it's going to be on the stipulation that he takes a budgeting class. We're having problems with a lot of them. The end of the month comes and they don't have their rent money, they can't pay their utilities," she said, chuckling at the gaggle of teenage boys she is now raising. "I never had children so it's sort of trial and error on my part. What do I do with these kids?"
Tyler won't hand over cash, knowing full well that a growing teenage boy would not buy produce or pay bills. Instead, she writes the checks or takes the young men shopping. For the ones who get in trouble with the law, Tyler has persuaded the Washington County attorney to ask judges to enroll them in life skills classes and Job Corps instead of sentencing them to jail.
"I'm totally receptive to this idea," Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said last month. "I'd like to see them gain the sort of skills that can help them succeed with jobs, education and in their personal lives."
Others have started to take notice of The HOPE Organization's creative ways of helping polygamy's outcasts. The United Way Dixie has given The HOPE several thousand dollars to continue their mission.
"It gives us credibility and I think prestige," Tyler said. "I respect them a lot."
After giving a presentation on her group at St. George's swanky Bloomington Country Club, Tyler was approached by two United Way Dixie board members who encouraged her to apply for a grant.
"I was concerned that the audience we help was too controversial," she said.
Nonsense, insists the United Way Dixie.
"Many of The HOPE Organization's clients have been the victims of domestic violence but may not be willing to go to other agencies in our community," said Tami Sevier of United Way Dixie. Given the unique nature of the community, Sevier said it is appropriate to fund them "even though other groups offer similar services."
Tyler is in the process of drumming up more dollars to keep her tiny organization going. She does not draw a salary but admits to working 60-plus hour weeks as a volunteer. The HOPE Organization logged more than 2,500 volunteer hours last year. Tyler said 100 percent of public donations go to helping victims. Office and administrative costs are covered privately.
The HOPE Organization was born out of the ashes of a St. George-based group known as Help the Child Brides, led by anti-polygamy activists. Infighting among some of them led to resignations and the group's near collapse. Tyler, a retired victim advocate, was a volunteer at the time. She picked up the pieces and renamed it "HOPE" in capital letters.
Tyler wants to make it clear her group is not anti-polygamy — just anti-abuse.
"We are not anti-polygamy at all. We are not going to debate the pros and cons of polygamy. We just help the people in that community because we feel like it's been underserved," she said. "I don't care if they practice polygamy or not, that's their decision. I don't think they've been treated well, and I think that's wrong."
The Utah Attorney General's Office applauds The HOPE Organization's efforts.
"That is the best model of what an advocacy group should be because they are out there helping people," said Paul Murphy, coordinator of the Utah Attorney General's Safety Net Committee created to build bridges and deal with abuse within polygamous communities.
"Elaine's not out there to denigrate their religion, but she's out there to stop abuse in the name of religion."
Even pro-polygamy groups are giving The HOPE Organization some plugs.
"From what we've heard they've been effective at providing help and resources, and we appreciate their efforts," said Mary Batchelor of the group Principle Voices.
The Centennial Park Action Committee, a group of plural families in that community, said HOPE and Tyler have been very active with them in the Safety Net Committee.
"HOPE, as a nonprofit, has to raise money to fund its operations. I have some issues with some of the things they put out there as the whole fact that re-enforce negative stereotypes as the norm instead of the exception," Ann Wright of the Centennial Park Action Committee said. "But when it is time to meet and work on issues before the Safety Net Committee we have a rule to be respectful of one another."
Tyler said not everybody is happy with her group's efforts to fight abuse within polygamy and help those who want to leave. During her interview with the Deseret Morning News, she would not allow her picture to be taken directly, saying that she fears being recognized by enemies she has made. Yet she feels proud of The HOPE Organization's accomplishments.
"We've come so far, it's just amazing," she said. "First of all, they've started to address the abuses."
For Ailene Runs Through, The HOPE Organization has given her just that — hope.
"They helped me so much, I can't even believe how much they helped me," Runs Through said. "I didn't know there were people out there wanting to help."