The Mormon Legacy: From the Words to The Word

A mother sets out to learn more about her son’s remarkable dyslexia tutor—and winds up with an education in pioneer living and Mormon faith

Commitment and comprehension: Cassandra Hafen works with student Nathan Kistle. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Commitment and comprehension: Cassandra Hafen works with student Nathan Kistle. | Photo by Jon Estrada

“To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”

– Luke 12:48

In 2010, when one of her children was struggling to read, Cassandra Hafen took it upon herself to learn more about dyslexia. A veteran teacher of English as a Second Language, she found herself in new territory, so she retrained and became a certified specialist in the sonorously named Barton/Orton-Gillingham method. This unique approach calls for the engagement of all of a student’s senses: visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic. It has a lofty track record—it’s the preferred method at the New York’s Windward School, perhaps the nation’s top dyslexia program—and now Hafen was determined to bring it to her one-on-one practice in suburban Henderson.

As the mother of a severely dyslexic son, I had gone through some of the same struggles as Hafen. So when I learned about her in 2013, I called immediately. As I sat in the sessions and watched her create a sequential language system for my child, building on itself in an almost three-dimensional way, I knew I’d struck gold. She had what you might call quiet spirit—a strength of character that allows her to be gently proactive rather than restlessly reactive. She always seemed to be a step ahead.

I wasn’t alone in noticing this about Hafen. “Our son responds to Cassandra because of her gentle manner, patience, calming voice and clear expectations,” another parent, Gina Venglass, told me. “She believes in him, and he knows this.” An adult student told me that it was Hafen who helped him pass tough police academy tests so he could begin his career in law enforcement.

Her skills are empowered by a unique ability to pin down the roots of challenges—and to empathize. “Cassandra understands why a student is struggling,” says Las Vegas dyslexia screener Katrina Letourneaut, who has been a mentor for Hafen. “And she works hard at building their self-confidence.”

I began to wonder what accounted for her remarkable alchemy. How did she inspire the mind of a child where so many others have failed? To put it grandly, what made her who she was? As we got to know each other better, that question led me to an exploration not simply of her teaching style, but of her approach to life, her ethical outlook and, ultimately, her Mormon faith. Soon enough, I found myself immersed in the story of one of Henderson’s most powerful extended families.


Cassandra Hafen on her LDS mission in Taiwan.

Cassandra Hafen on her LDS mission in Taiwan.

The Hafens have been Mormon missionaries for five generations. In 1993, Cassandra and her husband, Russ Hafen, who runs Henderson’s Hafen Nursery, tried to master Mandarin for their LDS mission in Taiwan. (Learning such a difficult second language, she says, triggered her interest in literacy.) In Taiwan, she taught English, cleaned houses, took care of the elderly and proselytized. Today, Hafen is a member of the American-Chinese Foundation and continues to teach literacy to a student in Taiwan via Skype.

“Service to the community, industry, hard work and frugality were inherited,” Hafen says. The tradition of community service is apparent in Hafen’s relatives: Her husband’s cousin Andy is the mayor of Henderson, and Andy’s daughter, Tessa, ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2006. “My parents followed in their parents’ way of life,” Tessa Hafen told me. “They’ve always been active in church, helping neighbors, working in the community. I am grateful for that sense of purpose and that understanding of where we came from, why we are here and where we are going.”

When I told Cassandra that her commitment seems to run in the family, she smiled and told me I didn’t yet know the half of it. Then she gave me a book.


A well-thumbed copy  of Mary Ann Hafen’s pioneer memoir.

A well-thumbed copy
of Mary Ann Hafen’s pioneer memoir.

On May 11, 1860, 6-year-old Mary Ann Stucki and her family left Bern, Switzerland, for the United States. They crossed the Atlantic on the William Tapscott with 731 Mormons. After coming ashore in New York, they boarded a train for Nebraska. There they joined Mormon pioneers en route to Zion, trudging by handcart across 1,300 miles of plains.

Many years later, Mary Ann would write Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860: A Woman’s Life on the Mormon Frontier. Her story has survived five generations, finding its way onto Cassandra Hafen’s bookshelf, and into my hands.

From 1856 to 1860, the family was among 2,969 Mormon missionaries, using 662 handcarts—pulled not by livestock but by the travelers themselves. Mary Ann and her 9-year-old brother walked along the two-wheeled cart; her 2-year-old sister and a 6-month-old brother rode inside. Mary Ann’s father, a carpenter, pulled the cart while her mother pushed it from behind.  “Mother’s feet were so swollen,” Mary Ann wrote, “that she could not wear shoes, but had to wrap her feet with cloth.”

Hitched to the handcart was one cow for milking. “One day a group of Indians came riding up on horses. Their jingling trinkets, dragging poles and strange appearance frightened the cow and sent her chasing off with the cart and children,” Mary Ann wrote. “We were afraid the children might be killed, but the cow fell into a deep gully and the cart turned upside down.” No one was hurt, but after that, their father did not hitch the cow to the cart again.

At last they arrived at Emigration Canyon, Utah, and gazed for the first time at the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Like LDS President Brigham Young himself, they said, “This is the place.” But in reality it was a dry, hot primitive desert land, not at all resembling the beauty of Switzerland from whence they came. The family prayed for their own survival as well as the other LDS pioneers. (More echoes of this heritage: “Life doesn’t always turn out how we want it to or we think it will,” Tessa Hafen told me, “but God is mindful of us.”)

When the family arrived, knowing no English, people greeted them with baskets of fruit and other goods. “Even though we could not understand their language,” Mary Ann wrote, “they made us feel that we were among friends.”

Mary Ann’s father settled at Fort Clara in Southern Utah; he built a wigwam, a waterwheel, a cotton gin, a loom and a spinning wheel. Vineyards and a dam were built. The town of Santa Clara was born, a predominantly Swiss, German-speaking Mormon settlement.

On November 24, 1873, Mary Ann, who had already married and been widowed (her husband died 10 days after the wedding in a buggy accident), married another Swiss emigrant, John George Hafen. He also would marry Mary Ann’s younger sister, Rosie, who had also been widowed. He had four wives in all, and is the common ancestor of many of today’s Hafens living in Southern Utah and the Las Vegas Valley—including Mayor Andy Hafen and Cassandra’s husband, Russ.

Today, Andy Hafen stresses that, even in the mid-19th century, Mormon polygamy was “not a wholesale thing,” and that John George was called to the practice by the church leaders. At the time, the church sometimes asked men to marry widowed young women in particular to protect them—and to proliferate. “Polygamy was practiced in my family only by my great-great-grandfather, John George Hafen, in the mid-1800s, by order of the Church,” Russ says. “It hasn’t been practiced in the Hafen family for five generations.”

Mary Ann eventually had seven children with John George Hafen, birthing all of them at home. “I have never had a doctor at the birth of any of my children, nor at any other time for that matter,” she wrote. “And I never paid more than five dollars for the services of a midwife.” (Another strong echo: Today, Cassandra Hafen is not only a dyslexia tutor, but also a member of the International Childbirth Educator Association and a doula, assisting in the home birth of her own sister’s baby in April.)

The Hafens labored with other skilled families to build the cities of St. George and Salt Lake City. They also peddled in mining towns in Utah and Nevada. Community and commerce thrived. In 1891, John George Hafen moved Mary Ann to Bunkerville, Nevada. Mormons had been active in Southern Nevada for years already, having built what is now known as the Old Mormon Fort along the Las Vegas Creek in 1855. Mary Ann’s move heralded the eventual settling of many Hafens in Southern Nevada, most notably in Henderson.

Five generations later, Tessa smiles about what it meant to grow up a Hafen. “Everywhere I went there were family members—aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. It was, and is, really a wonderful thing. I have so many cousins—as children, cousins are your best friends in the world.”

Mary Ann and her  family in 1895.

Mary Ann and her family in 1895.


 “When I first read Mary Ann’s story, I felt grateful and amazed,” Cassandra says. “I don’t know if I could have endured what she went through—she set such a good example for our family.”

Cassandra has made it her mission to live up to that example. Along with her dyslexia and doula work, she is a co-founder of S.E.E.K.—Seeking Enrichment and Expanding Knowledge—an educational enrichment program for homeschoolers. To sum up her worldview, she likes to quote Luke 12:48: “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”

Each day, Cassandra tutors her students right across the street from her LDS church in Henderson. I find myself thinking of her as a modern-day pioneer, extending her faith into a public service to make illiterate people literate. Thanks to her, my son is making strides at a pace neither he nor I thought possible.

My son has an unusual gift for words, and when he uses the gift to describe his dyslexia, I always find myself learning something important. Not long ago, he helped me see something important about Cassandra: “The most frustrating thing about struggling to read is—-well—life,” he said. “I just got used to living in a cage. With Mrs. Hafen, I feel like we’re filing away at the padlock.”

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