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'Grandma' to hundreds, she gives troubled girls new chance in life

No one knows exactly how many teenage girls that Lila Bjorklund has had a major role in rescuing from crime on the streets, abusive parents, drugs and alcohol, or just simply from their own self-destructive behavior.

Lila - as she insists on being called - doesn't really know the numbers herself because she is not the sort of person who keeps count of facts and figures. She is a mother and grandmother of the caliber who lets her heart lead the way when helping troubled young people.Founder and chairman of the board of trustees of the non-profit Utah Girls' Village, she has been actively involved answering the cries of young people.

Lila Bjorklund's trail to chairman of the board of trustees began one day when the eldest of her five children came home from elementary school and announced, "Mother, I told my teacher you would be a room mother."

"I looked down at him, and he seemed so proud," recalled the now-gray-haired grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of two. "He just beamed."

Her service as a room mother led to other involvement in school and community functions. Now she has a five-page resume, but it only gives a glimpse of her contributions to her city, state and nation. Among other positions, she has been a state PTA president, a member of the state board of education, and has served on a number of state and national committees concerning children and youths. She also has served on a couple of general Church committees. Last year, she received BYU's Presidential Citation in recognition of her lifetime of service to the young and the needy.

She began working with troubled youths when she served on a committee for the Salt Lake Council of Women in the 1960s. As a member of that committee, she was assigned to Salt Lake's detention center and juvenile court.

She vividly remembers how upset she was the first time she visited the detention center and saw girls literally locked in. "I listened to those children, and I thought, `Oh, these are beautiful young girls, they shouldn't be in a place like this. They should be in church, in school. They should be having a good time, enjoying life and doing other good things. There is a time and a place for everything, and this certainly isn't the place for these girls. These are beautiful souls. They shouldn't be here."

Lila left the detention center, thinking someone should help those girls. She had no inkling she would be that "someone."

One day while she was ironing, a friend visited and said, "Lila, you must do something to help us get a home for these girls." Although she didn't know what she would do, or how, she banded with other women. They created Utah Girls' Village, a non-profit program based on the concept of placing troubled girls in a home atmosphere under the care of professionally trained couples.

In 1969, she became president and founder, both non-paid positions, of Utah Girls' Village, when the village was still only a concept. In 1975, the village opened the first of three group homes. Originally planned to house 12 girls, the homes now have seven girls each. All the village's residents today are placed in the homes by juvenile courts.

Two of the homes are in the Salt Lake Valley's Kearns area; another is in Pleasant Grove, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City. Utah Girls' Village also trains personnel and supervises a correctional home for boys, as well as trains for structured foster homes in Utah.

The board of directors of Girls' Village serve without pay. "I've never been paid for a full day's work in my life," she said. "My entire life always centered around home and family, and my husband the late Russell E. BjorklundT would never think of my working outside the home."

He supported and encouraged her to serve in the Church and on school, community and civic projects. "I kept hearing about programs to help boys, but I didn't hear of many to help girls," she said. "I've always felt that we need to be fair, that every child is special."

The desire to see children treated fairly is rooted in her own childhood in a loving and happy home in northern Utah.

Her father, Michael Burton, was killed in a shooting accident when she was 9. Although her mother, Alta Serepta Burton, was left as the sole support of four daughters and one son, she took in other children. "At one time, Mother had 14 children in her care," she said. "The wife of an uncle died, so Mother took in my little cousins. And other children also were brought to Mother to look after."

The dreadful day came when the widowed mother realized she could no longer manage to care for her own children and so many others. "She had to take my cousins to the orphanage," Lila recalled. "That just broke her heart; she grieved for a long time."

The Church helped round out young Lila's life. Always active, she found great security in the Church, and it was at a Church activity that she met Russell Bjorklund, who had returned from a mission to Sweden. They married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1936.

The Church was always in the background and foreground of their home and family life as she served in various ward and stake auxiliaries, and on general Church committees. She is now the single adult leader in the Salt Lake Ensign Stake.

She maintains an office at Girls' Village and makes frequent visits to the village's homes. The scene of her arrival is typical of what one might expect in any loving home: "Grandma" is surrounded by a cluster of young people, ages ranging from 12-17, all anxious to receive hugs and kisses. Then "Grandma" and "granddaughters" settle down to visit. With few lulls in conversation, she learns of their daily school activities and listens to their hopes and plans for the future.

And she listens with undivided attention, for these are among the hundreds of girls she has rescued and given a new chance in life.