SALT LAKE CITY — Autism prevented Aaron Jepson from having any meaningful communication with anyone for the first 15 years of his life.
Three years ago when he finally was able to share his innermost thoughts, his first message to his parents was how much he hated his life.
Patience, family support and gaining a testimony of the gospel helped Jepson find peace and purpose in his life.
For Ray Flores, a 66-year-old skateboarder from California, the positive influence of three surfers, a kind Mormon couple and a member missionary daughter changed his life.
“What a blessing it is to be a member of the church,” Flores said.
Jepson and Flores are two of several Mormons whose inspirational stories are being featured as part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' #LightTheWorld initiative this month.
Bryan Jepson, Aaron's father, along with Flores, recently shared parts of their stories that aren't found in the videos, including details about Aaron Jepson's struggle to find his voice and what led Flores to join the LDS Church.
Finding a voice
From the time Aaron Jepson was diagnosed with autism at age 3, his parents have tried all the standard therapies to help him learn to communicate, but to no avail. His father Bryan said Aaron could say the ABCs and repeat lines from the movie “Toy Story,” but nothing more.
As he got older, Aaron Jepson learned to speak in full sentences but only to ask for food or household needs, never anything deeper, his father said.
Failure to communicate made life frustrating for Aaron Jepson the teenager, and his parents could only watch helplessly.
“We didn’t know how to help him or communicate with him,” Bryan Jepson said.
The family found hope when Aaron's adopted brother Austin, who also has autism, learned to communicate using a stencil board in which he could identify letters for spelling words and building sentences.
They tried this method with Aaron and found success. In time they moved from a stencil board to an iPad and opened a new line of communication with their sons.
“It became clear that here you have this completely non-verbal, severely autistic kid that on the inside communicates fluently, is creative and is empathetic — a lot of the things that people don’t associate with autism,” Bryan Jepson said. "It was a blessing because we could start parenting and teaching."
Aaron Jepson's first conversations were about how much he hated his life. He didn't believe in God because God wouldn't do something like give autism to somebody. He was also sad because his older brother Ben was preparing for a mission call and even though he was happy for his brother, he was disappointed that his life wouldn't be like his brother's.
His parents did their best to teach Aaron that Heavenly Father had a different purpose for him.
"I’m not sure Aaron bought that at first, he was still pretty unhappy," Bryan Jepson said. "But we encouraged him to find out for himself if God was there, so he was diligent about that."
Aaron Jepson prayed for months before one day his parents showed him a video about Joseph Smith's First Vision experience and something wonderful happened. At first his parents didn't think he was paying attention because he was looking away, but they learned he did that to focus more on what was being spoken.
"When it was done, he started typing to me and wrote out this amazing testimony, and how he felt the Spirit so strong," Bryan Jepson said. "I think he really relates to Joseph Smith because he was a simple person that did great things. Aaron feels that way about himself. … From that moment on he was totally converted."
While still battling the rigors of life and autism, Aaron Jepson has had subsequent spiritual experiences that have confirmed to him that he has a divine purpose. Part of that purpose is sharing the gospel through autism, Bryan Jepson said.
Aaron Jepson has written and continues to write short talks for delivery in Sunday worship services, sometimes read by others, sometimes by him, although it's a struggle. His father read the first one at his brother Ben's last sacrament meeting before leaving on his mission.
"There was an amazing spirit, not a dry eye in the room," Bryan Jepson said. "He has a way of conveying the spirit like nobody else."
Aaron and Austin also like to write about their journey with autism on a blog — Jepsonfiles.com.
Aaron Jepson, now 18, is preparing to serve a part-time service mission where he will have opportunities to speak in church, perform service and go on visits with the full-time missionaries.
When #LighttheWorld organizers asked to feature Aaron's story in a video, Bryan Jepson said his son was thrilled.
"He wants to share his testimony with as many people as possible. When he heard about this, he was all in," Bryan Jepson said. "He is naturally a shy person, and it was weird for him to have a camera in his face all the time. Weird for us too. But we hope his story will touch some people. … Overall it was a good experience."
Aaron Jepson typed out his own thoughts, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be involved.
"There would be no other way that I would have an opportunity to share my testimony to so many people," Aaron Jepson wrote to the Deseret News. "Because of my disability, I am not able to serve a regular full-time mission, and that makes me really sad, but I have other ways that I can serve the Lord, and I intend to take full advantage of any opportunity that I am given to share what I know with others. I love this gospel and want others to learn about it too."
When the family first saw they video, the tears flowed freely.
"It’s hard to explain what it’s like to not be able to talk to your kids for 15 years, and then to have that experience and see how they’ve taken that blessing and are using it to help other people, I mean that’s about as good as it can get as a parent," Bryan Jepson said. "For us to see him share his story was pretty neat. … We are extremely blessed with our boys’ ability to talk with us now, and we know not everybody will get that."
Bryan Jepson says parents with children who can't communicate should take heart in knowing their children are likely aware of everything they say, especially when it comes to teaching them about the gospel.
"It gets discouraging and hard to know that what you are doing as a parent is making any difference," he said. "I know it is because of Aaron's experience. … Just keep at it and don't give up."
As a father, he also suggests never giving up on helping your child to find their voice, whether it's through writing, art or other means.
"These kids have great capacity. I really believe they are special kids," Bryan Jepson said. "These kids have the ability to impact others more than the average person."
The beauty of eternal families
Flores' video depicts his willingness to serve others in his community using his passion for skateboarding.
But the stories of how Flores developed his passion for skateboarding and later joined the church are also compelling.
His first memory of skateboarding came at age 6, around 1956 or 1957, when he used to watch three men go surfing each day on a beach in Santa Monica, California. One day the men came out of their garage with a 2-by-4 piece of wood with roller skate wheels attached. They began riding it up and down the sidewalk.
The men invited Flores to try it and then gave the "sidewalk surfer" to him. The rest is history, he said.
"I am one of the grandfathers of skateboarding," Flores said. "I wouldn't say a pioneer but I am definitely one of the founding fathers of the modern-day kind of skateboarding."
It was during those younger years, while Flores was learning to skateboard, that he also had Mormon neighbors who became dear friends. They became affectionately known as Aunt Pearl and Uncle Bill, and Flores' mother trusted them as if they were family. This kind couple planted a seed with Flores that later blossomed when he investigated the church.
"They were the only people in the world my mom would trust to babysit me and my sister," Flores said. "I grew up loving Mormons because of Aunt Pearl and Uncle Bill. They even took me to church a few times, with parent permission. … I have always loved Mormons. I never thought I would convert to one though."
About 15 years ago, his 11-year-old daughter, who then lived with his ex-wife in Hawaii, called to ask for his blessing to be baptized into the LDS Church. Flores, who was raised in the Catholic Church but had been drawn to Hinduism and Buddhism as he became older. He gave her his blessing.
When his daughter visited him the next summer, she invited him to attend LDS Church services with her. The more meetings he attended, the more he learned about the church, especially the faith's Word of Wisdom, the more he liked how he felt there. The following year he became a Mormon. It wasn't a drastic change because Flores was already living the lifestyle, although he did learn to stop "cussing," he said.
"I was following those principles so it wasn’t like I was making a huge sacrifice," said Flores, who lives in Venice Beach. "A lot of people are turned off by the church because they don’t think they are going to have any fun in their life. I am proof that if you don’t do those things you’ll have even more fun, and you'll live even longer."
What Flores loves about the church is its focus on families, whether it's associating with his ward family or bringing his own family closer together. His nonmember mother has started attending and bringing other family members, much to his delight.
"To have a family together for eternity is just the most beautiful thing in the world," Flores said. "I can't think of anything more beautiful than that."
These days you can find Flores collecting discarded wood from street alleys and shaping it into skateboards or snowboards, many of which he gives away to missionaries at the end of their missions. He never charges a fee. When invited, he enjoys sharing his story at firesides and teaching elderly women how to skateboard.
"It's my life's work and I'm glad to share it with everybody," Flores said. "What a blessing it is to be a member of the church."