Draper • Meri Brown's presence Saturday at Holding Out Help's 5K fundraiser was tinged with controversy.
Holding Out Help assists people who are leaving polygamy. And Brown one of four women married to reality TV star Kody Brown not only embraces the lifestyle but popularizes it on the show "Sister Wives."
"We've had some mixed feelings. Some of our clients come from the same community she's from," explained Nicole Nystrom, the nonprofit's youth program coordinator.
But since its inception in 2008, Holding Out Help has refused to pick sides in the emotionally fraught debate over the good and bad of polygamy. And if anyone was harboring sour grapes on Saturday, they kept it to themselves, including Brown, whose only complaint was having to re-acclimate to Utah's chilly fall temperatures and higher altitudes.
"I'm downright cold this morning," she said, rubbing her hands.
Brown arrived in Salt Lake City Thursday night, having driven from Las Vegas, where she and her family have lived since leaving Lehi for fear of criminal prosecution. There were no TV cameras dogging her steps at Draper City Park, no fanfare or speeches. Just she and her brother-in-law, Nathan, queuing up at the starting gate with about 100 others.
Many of the runners had no connection to polygamy. Others had escaped or been forced to flee such polygamous communities as the Warren Jeffs-led Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Among them was Elissa Wall, chief witness in the prosecution of Jeffs. Wall, who escaped a sexually abusive marriage that was arranged for her at the age of 14, said of Brown's participation: "I'm thrilled she's here. We're all here for the same reason, to support the community."
Brown heard about the race from Holding Out Help founder Tonia Tewell.
"When she told me about it, I said, 'I'm there,' " Brown said. She took up running recently to get fit and shed pounds. Saturday's 5K was her second.
Having grown up in polygamy, Brown said she sympathizes with people who flee or who are forced to flee. "Everyone goes through the process of deciding what they want, what's right for them. I did as a teenager."
But she didn't come to protest any particular fundamentalist sect's practices.
"I'm not going to stand in judgment against anyone," she said. "Some people might think a situation is abusive that others don't. To me it's about choice. I'm all about supporting people's freedom to live how they want to live."
Brown finds no comfort in her celebrity status and says she ignores naysayers who question her motives.
"It's weird. I'm still me," she says. "I know people who support my being here. Everyone has an opinion. I guess you have to choose what you want to listen to."
Holding Out Help raised about $5,000 on Saturday. With a budget of about $125,000, the group has helped about 250 "domestic refugees" this year, said founder Tewell.
Some of the charity's clients are still "on the inside," said Tewell. "We might get them food or marriage counseling."
The lion's share, however, are like Steven Keate, a 20-year-old who was banished a year ago from Colorado City, a town dominated by followers of Jeffs.
Keate's transgression: staying out past curfew, he said.
"I went out with some friends one night and didn't get home until about 2 a.m.," he said. "The next day my dad told me to go and never come back."
A quadruplet, Keate hasn't spoken to his siblings since.
"That's the hardest part. I dream about them," he said. But looking back he said his exodus was "the best thing that could have ever happened."
Keate was on his own for three months, couch surfing with friends, until he found Holding Out Help, which arranged for him to stay with a host family. "I didn't have any clothes or nothing," he said.
Today, he works as a machinist making dental equipment and pays rent on an apartment in Sandy. He wants to finish high school and aspires to go onto college.
"I wish I had left sooner," he said.
Holding Out Help is a small nonprofit group that gives aid to people leaving or being kicked out of the FLDS amid the turmoil of the last couple years. To donate or for more information, visit http://holdingouthelp.org.