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SALT LAKE CITY — When Stefanie and Roger Hunt were asked to create sculptures to honor the 660 children who died while trekking to Utah at a new Pioneer Children's Memorial, they "didn't believe it was gonna happen, because artists hear things like this all the time," Roger Hunt said.
But Saturday, hundreds of residents, government officials and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered at the new memorial at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City for its dedication.
For two people, creating the 26 or 27 intricate sculptures in less than a year involved "daily miracles," Hunt said. "Some of them seemingly small and some of them more major, and some inexplicable. It's been remarkable."
Kids splashed along the park's trail, with rocks and a stream that looks like the ones pioneer children played in more than 170 years ago. The Hunts' creations — strong pioneer figures and oxen — beckon people along the trail.
Other sculptures of children stand among large boulders on which are carved the names of those under age 17 known to have lost their lives along the journey.
After the dedication, visitors toured the memorial. Some found names of ancestors and took photos next to them.
"One of our goals is that when children come to this park, they will see what happened in those old times of pioneer days. But they're also going to hopefully be motivated to be pioneers today. That's our hope," said Ellis Ivory, chairman of This is the Place Foundation.
Saturday's dedication took place ahead of Utah's Pioneer Day celebration on Wednesday, during which parades and other celebrations will happen statewide to mark the entry of Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
Of the parents who lost their children on the journey to religious freedom, "I can't imagine the grief of those parents. No grave markers, leaving a child behind in a child grave, maybe on top of a cold, frozen ground. And now, the names of 660 of those children are engraved on these stones behind me," said Lane Summerhayes, president of Days of '47.
President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said the park is for everyone.
The pioneers "left their homes and, in some cases, their families in search of a place of refuge, where they could worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and build a future without persecution. There was little in the way of provisions and materials that they could carry with them. But each wagon and handcart was filled with faith. Faith in God. Faith that God knew where they were going and faith that he would see them through," President Ballard said.
"We're all bound together, the 19th and 21st Century pioneers, in our great journey to follow God's teachings which work miracles in our lives. We all appreciate the footsteps and faith walked by our forefathers across the Great Plains. And because of that, we will always hold them in great esteem and honor."
He said the park also honors "today's pioneers." In an interview with reporters, the church leader encouraged all Utahns to visit the site.
In the park's dedication, President Ballard asked that the park stay safe and protected, and that those who visit will "feel and know what a wonderful privilege it is" to have a place like the park and feel their faith increased.
Some visitors said the memorial helps them feel closer to their ancestors and heritage.
"My family was crossing the plains, and so it just reminds us that our families are involved. The children especially. I didn't realize that many children had died crossing the Plains. Over 600. That's amazing. It's important," Gilbert Isom said.
He said the park serves as a reminder that "while we do genealogy work, try to remember and learn as much as we can about our ancestors."
The Palmer family attended Saturday's dedication after having just returned from a five-day pioneer trek to Nebraska and back.
"And we heard so many stories this week about children sacrificing everything to come to Zion. And they died with their face toward Zion, with a focus that they loved their Savior and they wanted to be closer to him through the gospel, and it's been a wonderful experience. And this is amazing," Vicky Palmer said.
"It means everything to us just to know that our posterity, well, we hope our posterity, will stay faithful like these kids were trying to do," Alan Palmer added.
"These little children gave their all. It's pretty touching. We heard of a story coming in, and it's my ancestor. And she passed away just in the canyon right before they reached here. She'd gone the whole journey, and yet, she'd done everything she needed to do. And it was time for her to go back to her maker," Vicky Palmer said.
The sculptors tasked with completing the artwork said they worked every day and night, except for Sundays, and needed resilience akin to that of the pioneers, Roger Hunt said.
"We, like the pioneers, just started working and kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried to keep the positive attitude and never give up. We installed the last pieces on Wednesday, that's how close we cut it," he recalled.
They said they don't want their work to be noticed for its beauty but for the strength of the people it represents.
"It may sound odd, but we didn't want people to come up and say, 'Oh, look at these beautiful sculptures.' We wanted people to say, 'Look at these pioneers. Remember our pioneers.'"
Hunts' father died in March. "And I was really hoping that he would be here today. Maybe he is. But every son wants his dad to be proud of him. … It's a disappointment that he wasn't here physically. Kind of a parallel with the pioneers. It's hard, (but) you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and sometimes you lose somebody, and you just keep going," he said.
To see it completed, "It's joyful. A little emotional. It's a huge relief. … It's miraculous. Never expected to be in this position."
Some at the dedication said that though they don't have direct Utah pioneer heritage, they can connect to the pioneers' legacy of faith.
"We are naturally converts to the church. But my mom's family were the Adams and they came over from England. And while we don't have necessarily direct pioneer lineage, I think it's important for my kids … that they understand their heritage in terms of the gospel. So it may not be their blood heritage. … I think it's important that they understand the struggles of the gospel," Amanda Rigby explained.
Her son, Samuel, is sick and "probably won't be here long," she said. "So I'm trying to give him as many experiences, too, as I can."
"I love to get in the water," Samuel, age 4 ½, said. He's learned about pioneers in Primary class, he said. When prompted by his mom to remember the song "Pioneer Children," he sang, "They do, they sing … and their walked and walked and walked and walked."
When his mom showed him the picture they took with President Ballard and asked him who it is, Samuel said, "He helps Jesus."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the memorial is emblematic of the sacrifices of pioneers, past and present, who have turned Utah into what it is now and made "the desert blossom as a rose" and serves as "a reminder of what the community stands for."
"And today, we add to that legacy a remembrance of those young people who helped motivate their parents who came along, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, that came here for freedom and liberty," Herbert said.