Kenneth D. and Ruth Van Allen Wells have spent much of their time and practically all their money serving and helping others.
Both 83 and converts to the Church residing in the New Smyrna Beach Ward, Lake Mary Florida Stake, they not only reflect back on what they've accomplished but also yearn to do more.Their humanitarian efforts have taken them to such places as the jungles and orphanages of Vietnam and El Salvador in the midst of war and civil conflict. They took supplies to relieve hunger and suffering in the Caribbean, and to Costa Rica, Honduras, and other places in Central and South America, as well as to various parts of North America and Europe.
Much of their humanitarian work was done through the Family Foundation of America, which they organized in 1978 and presided over until it was discontinued in 1990. Through the foundation, they coordinated the collection and distribution of food, clothing, medicines and supplies for the care and relief of suffering among families, particularly young children, in some of the world's trouble spots.
Because of the volunteers Brother and Sister Wells recruited and the donations they solicited, some 1,800 children have received prostheses to replace arms and legs lost to land mines and other devices of war and tragedies of life. Although the foundation no longer exists, one of its creations does: an orphanage in El Salvador, called the Wells Refuge.
While neither age nor diminishing wealth could stop their humanitarian work, physical disabilities have curbed the range of their efforts.
Sister Wells said in a Church News telephone interview, "Currently he [Brother WellsT is crippled and I have arthritis very bad." She explained that her husband was injured a couple of years ago when, at age 80, he was making a delivery of food and clothing to needy families in Kentucky. A case of canned beans fell from a shipping pallet and struck him in the back. In constant pain since then, he spends most of his waking hours in a wheelchair.
"We're not physically able to get around, but we have a strong motivation to keep going," Sister Wells said. "We've seen so much that we would like to help change. We haven't waited for governments or other organizations to do what needs to be done. When we see that nothing is being done, we jump in.
"Every now and then, I sit down and cry because we can't do what we used to do. People still bring things for us to send to the needy, but we don't have the money to ship supplies any more. An airline recently agreed to ship free of charge 14 cases of food, clothing and medicines to the orphanage in El Salvador. We have 58 little children there. They're hungry, and we're old and broke."
Brother Wells is best known as the originator and one of three co-founders of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pa. He and his wife were incorporators of the foundation, and he was its president 21 years. He raised the money and wrote the charter, with the aid of Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and others. Edward F. Hutton, Wall Street broker, and Don Belding, former General Foods board chairman, were co-founders with him.
Brother Wells has been associated with world and national leaders of political, religious and many other organizations. Four U.S. presidents have been personal friends.
He has received more than 150 awards in recognition for his efforts in behalf of freedom, and 10 honorary doctorates, including one from BYU.
His career brought him in contact with leaders of many denominations, including the LDS Church. He became acquainted with President Ezra Taft Benson back in the days when the now-Church president was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1952-1960. President and Sister Benson have been guests in the home of Brother and Sister Wells. Brother Wells also was a friend to the late President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency and the late Ernest L. Wilkinson when he was president of BYU.
Brother Wells said he "had been a Mormon in my inner self for many years" before he and his wife joined the Church. "We went by the promptings of the Lord, but we never heard it expressed that way before," he reflected.
They recalled that as they were rearing their six children, four of whom are adopted, they felt something was lacking in their religious lives. They decided they would search for the true church, spending their lives, if necessary, in that quest.
They visited Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his 96 theses to a church door. They went to Rome and prayed in the Sistine Chapel, an experience they described as inspiring. They traveled to Asia and talked with a great number of people as they studied Zorastrianism, Hinduism, and Muslim religions.
Brother Wells said: "We visited the Holy Land where Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount, and we said, `Dear Lord, help us find the way.' We went to the place where [it is saidT Christ was born in Bethlehem, and tried to find the fundamental strength that seemed to be lacking in the religions we had studied.
"We really had a chance to put it together. Our first conclusion was that there is no validity without the validity of Christ. At the end of our long quest, there was no option, no place to go except to ask, `Where are the Mormon missionaries?' "
They wrote a letter to Pres. Wilkinson and told him they didn't know of any Mormons within a hundred miles of where they lived and asked him to see that someone from the Church visited them.
They were baptized in August 1975, at which time they attended the Tappahannock Branch, Richmond Virginia Stake, about 55 miles from where they then lived. They have held various positions in the Church. The state of their health now prohibits them from holding conventional Church positions, but they still find ways to serve and help foster the Church.
"We're happy Mormons," Sister Wells declared. "We're both 83, and working daily at home in any way we can. We love to have the missionaries come over and eat dinner with us. We've tried to be missionaries wherever we've gone ever since we joined the Church. No matter where we've gone, we've felt at home in the Church, although we've traveled to many countries and the languages have been different."
She said they always took copies of the Book of Mormon in the languages of the countries they visited to give to people they met along the way. Brother and Sister Wells said they never intended to retire from their humanitarian efforts or from Church work, and while they admit they have some difficulty coping with the more sedentary life-style imposed upon them they are determined to be as active as possible. Brother Wells is busy at work on three books, and Sister Wells spends much of her time on the telephone and writing letters pertaining to matters concerning humanitarian service.
"I'd like to tell all retired people to not just sit around and watch television, play bridge or golf and think they're having a great time. We've found that you feel better and have a better time when you do things for others," he emphasized.
She added: "We operate on the verse that says, `Faith without works is dead.' We point that out many times. You don't have to have perfect health to be of help. I was flying into jungles when people had to pick me up and put me in the helicopter. I think the most productive part of your life comes after age 70. Your head is well developed by that time. You don't have some of the distractions that you have when your family is young and growing. You don't have to compete in business."
Many people, upon learning that Brother and Sister Wells have gone into countries where war or revolutions were being fought, asked how they had the courage to go into such dangerous places.
"You don't think about the danger," she reflected. "You think about what you're able to do. When I've been asked if we were afraid, I've said: `Yes, we're afraid, but we're not scared. The Lord knows where we are and what we're doing.' " - Gerry Avant