Though it was once banned by their prophet, multilevel marketing has caught on in Utah polygamous communities

Dawn Bistline-Cooke at a Christmas Market in Colorado City, Ariz., Saturday December 16, 2017.

Colorado City, Ariz. • Dawn Bistline-Cooke and her husband couldn’t pay their power bill. They struggled to afford diapers. Their truck had been repossessed. And at priesthood meetings, leaders of the FLDS Church reminded her husband to contribute up to $1,000 a month toward the storehouse and legal costs of the polygamous sect.

During the week, her husband worked construction jobs out of town while Bistline-Cooke cared for their four children. In search of fun one weekend, she went to a “What Women Want” expo in St. George and found a business opportunity instead: selling appetite-suppressant lollipops called Power Pops.

Bistline-Cooke had a natural network to tap as she joined the multilevel marketing company: She signed up a quarter of her 43 siblings to sell the cherry and piña colada treats and get others to join.

“My sister and I had coffee parties” to promote the lollipops, she said. “That was our social life: Have a coffee party and breastfeed.”

And the $250 to $500 she earned each week helped the family afford “things we were desperate for.”

From the 1970s on, beginning with companies such as Amway, Avon, Tupperware and Mary Kay, one network-marketing craze after another swept through the dusty streets and 15-bedroom houses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the traditional home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

But a few months after Bistline-Cooke began to make money in 2004, FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs brought the community’s networks to a halt, denouncing multilevel marketing from the pulpit for taking money from the church. “Everyone dropped it,” she said.

Today, the Essential Coffee Co. drive-thru in Colorado City offers to add Young Living oils to a take-away coffee for 45 cents — making peppermint, orange and nutmeg drops from the Lehi MLM company one sign of the industry’s resurgence among current and former FLDS members.

For people leaving the church, “It’s the easiest and cheapest way into business,” Bistline-Cooke said. “Especially for moms leaving with kids. They don’t have any means to support themselves and have to stay at home with their young kids.”

For FLDS women, MLM events are a way to stay connected, as many families are departing the towns on orders from Jeffs, who’s been incarcerated since 2011.

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Many join networks to get price breaks on oils and other products; even the most ambitious use MLMs and direct sales to supplement their income while working other jobs. Few can make it a full-time career. Only 5,000 to 7,000 people live in the two towns, known together as Short Creek, and many in the area are living in poverty. That limits opportunities to build a lucrative downline — the new members who share a portion of their sales with their recruiter.

And there are cultural challenges for those who are FLDS or grew up in the church: Approaching possible new customers from outside the community at a grocery store means negotiating social barriers long imposed in a reclusive faith deeply skeptical of others. While online meetings, promotional videos, blogs and social media platforms are powerful marketing tools, some shun or feel less comfortable with the internet, once banned by Jeffs.

But new enterprises are drawing on that same history. Former FLDS members are starting businesses that offer cleaning and sewing, skills central to life in the church, while one family is reopening a much-loved and mourned candy store.

‘Put forth effort to get the reward’

Caroline Darger grew up on America’s highways in her father’s semitruck, rather than playing with children from other polygamous families on Short Creek’s unpaved streets. “I got to see a lot of places through a window,” she remembers.

She remains a member of the church, although she now lives in Kanab with her landscaper-husband and two children — one of many families who have been evicted from or left Short Creek after disputes with a board overseeing homes once owned by a church trust. The state seized the trust out of concern that Jeffs was mismanaging it.

Darger is among the dozens of FLDS members who have joined Life Leadership — a North Carolina MLM company that church followers praise for offering them connection and support beyond their financial goals.

For $120 a month, Life members learn how to get themselves out of debt. To make money, they can market books and CDs that explain the financial strategy; they can also volunteer for community projects with other members.

Darger, who has struggled with depression, said Life Leadership’s teachings are “very uplifting.” While she has “a few people under me” in a downline, she’s still dealing with credit card debt, she said. “I haven’t taken the time to build my business. You have to put forth effort to get the reward.”

She doesn’t use the internet, and sells to and recruits mostly other FLDS members. She considers her weekly Life meetings “my two hours without the kids” and has been to two conventions with her team members, once seeing the Amish “at a distance.”

In December, at a weekly gathering of Life members and interested newcomers in a St. George hotel, more than a dozen FLDS women were part of a crowd of about 50 people. The women had come from as far afield as Huntington, near Price, Cedar City and Kanab, and several had young children in tow. The meetings are a chance for sister wives and siblings who have left Short Creek to meet up.

FLDS members are drawn to Life “to figure out their finances. They’re people upside down in something trying to figure out new ways to make ends meet,” said one FLDS woman at the meeting. But she also pointed to the comfort that she feels: “It’s about how to keep your mind encouraged and happy.”

She requested anonymity because she was concerned about backlash from within the church for talking to a reporter.

The woman said she supports her husband’s two-year dedication to Life despite the lack of proceeds, which she attributes to the truck driver’s shyness. His commitment is to the product rather than earnings, she said. “He likes it because it builds character,” she said.

FLDS members sell primarily to those still in the faith, former church members say. If church members want to be financially successful, they’ll need to overcome their suspicion of outsiders, said Harvey Dockstader Jr., a veteran network marketer who is a member of a polygamist group in Centennial Park and owns a health food store in neighboring Colorado City.

Network marketing, he said, is a great training ground for people with a history in the FLDS Church. “It teaches how to be social, how to deal with their bottled-up fears. From that perspective, it’s therapeutic. They may not make money, but they’ll blossom if they participate.”

‘Dude, we could totally sell this’

Sisters Karen and Elizabeth Dutson grew up in Salt Lake City, but their FLDS father moved the family to Short Creek in 2000 after church leaders ordered followers to gather in the community to prepare for civilization’s end. When that didn’t come, the family stayed.

While their parents had money, the sisters saw how their friends’ families relied on MLM companies for supplemental income, hawking Amway and products from eyewear accessories company Chums to relatives at the Creek.

“It was a thing you did to survive,” said Karen Dutson, who’s 28.

Today the sisters run a business called 4PureHealth, based on oils from doTERRA, an international MLM company based in Pleasant Grove.

Elizabeth and Karen Dutson selling products at a Christmas market in Colorado City, Ariz., Saturday December 16, 2017.

When Karen Dutson’s baby was sick four years ago, Elizabeth Dutson gave her diluted doTERRA oils mixed into coconut oil to rub onto the infant’s skin. After the baby got better, Karen Dutson told her sister, “Dude, we could totally sell this.”

They sell packs of four diluted oils for babies and two roller bottles for mothers at several small markets each year.

At a Christmas market in Colorado City organized by a local nonprofit, The Wise Woman’s Connection, they also sold $10 doTERRA and coconut oil blends that help, they say, with anxiety, the occasional “ouchie,” milk support and other maternal needs.

Other women at the December market promoted MLM products from Mary Kay cosmetics to Melaleuca’s wellness products.

The sisters left Short Creek separately as teenagers, and they and their father have left the church. But Elizabeth Dutson, 32, last year moved back to Hildale, where she raises her three children with her partner. Karen Dutson lives in Kanab with the father of her two children and has a full-time job cleaning vacation homes. They joined doTERRA mainly to afford the oils themselves.

“We’d be more into it if we did it for money,” Karen Dutson said.

Family pride

As a teen, Sarah Dutson washed dishes in the kitchen of her great-grandmother’s Vermillion Cliffs Candy Shop, her cheeks flushed in the heat. When she was 16, she graduated to making sandwiches. But she left Short Creek while she was still a teenager after sneaking out at night to see boys. “I was supposed to talk to the prophet and confess about breaking the rules,” she said. “I didn’t want to.”

The Colorado City candy store was closed by the FLDS, she said. Dutson now hopes to reopen the shop in January, a block from its former home. A cousin of Karen and Elizabeth Dutson, she returned to Short Creek in 2016 and is working with other relatives who are no longer FLDS members.

“A lot of our family is still in the church and might be upset about it,” she said, but added, “It’s just as much my history as theirs. We’ll be here when they want to come. … We’ll welcome them with open arms.”

Now 33 and a single mother with a 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old twin boys, she’s also attending school at Mohave Community College in Colorado City.

At the Christmas market, she sold homemade peppermint popcorn, caramel popcorn, pecan rolls, pumpkin and mocha rolls and doughnuts, all from family recipes. “I’m so proud of it, so very proud of my Dutson,” she said about making and selling baked goods to the public.

Sandra LeBaron offering sewing lessons at a Christmas market in Colorado City, Ariz., Saturday, December 16, 2017.

Sandra LeBaron also is building a business based on skills she learned while in the church. Last summer, the 45-year-old LeBaron opened Bobbins Nest, a fabric store in Colorado City. She also teaches sewing, long valued by FLDS families who made their own clothes.

“A lot of people coming out of the FLDS know how to sew; they don’t want to do it anymore,” LeBaron said. “Part of it is what it represents. … Most of them were never allowed to go out and purchase their own stuff, so there’s kind of a stigma to sewing.”

Many women turn to house cleaning for income after leaving the church. Bistline-Cooke started her Handy Lady Cleaning business eight years ago in Idaho, specializing in vacation homes and post-construction clean-up. In the FLDS, she said, “you learn how to clean really well.”

Now living in Washington, Utah, she keeps an eye out for ways to bring in extra income; in June she joined a new MLM company that sells environmentally friendly toilet paper delivered for free to customers’ homes. Better Planet Paper promises to plant a tree for each order of toilet paper or paper towels.

The new surge in network marketing and small businesses will empower other women, Bistline-Cooke said.

“I believe working the business and doing it themselves builds confidence,” she wrote in a text. “Making money from it gives them more choices.”

That’s certainly her story. Traditionally, women in Short Creek depended on support from others, Bistline-Cooke said, “and I got to the point I didn’t want to do that ever again. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions and money provides that.”

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