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Young Man With Special Needs Finds Joy, Inspires Others in His Utah Ward

Hunter Cragun’s service as the assistant Primary music leader has been ‘transformational,’ his bishop says

This story appears here courtesy of
TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Trent Toone, Church News

Less than six months ago, Joni Walton was asked to serve as the Primary music leader of the Inverness Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Syracuse, Utah.

Of course, Walton was willing to lead out during the children’s singing time, but she had a request.

Would the bishop consider calling Hunter Cragun, a young man with special needs, to serve as her assistant Primary music leader?

This additional calling — an answer to his parents’ prayers — was extended and eagerly accepted.

Months later, Cragun — with his happy countenance, friendly interactions and powerful singing voice — has made the Primary the place to be.

Joni Walton, the Primary music leader, hugs her assistant music leader Hunter Cragun during the primary class at the Inverness Ward in Syracuse, Utah, on April 30, 2023. Photo by Ryan Sun, courtesy of Church News.Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

Standing next to Walton in front of a room full of children on Sunday, April 30, Cragun enthusiastically sang and led the music, waving his arm back and forth, song after song. While he isn’t able to form words, those listening could feel his love for the Savior through his booming voice.

“OK, let’s try to sing louder than Hunter,” Walton cheerfully encouraged the children. Cragun grinned joyfully as he accepted the challenge.

Humility, kindness and love are manifest when Hunter lights up the room with his smile, which means dry eyes are rare when visiting the Primary these days, said Bishop Brock Johnston of the Inverness Ward.

“Honestly, Hunter has been transformational in our Primary,” he said. “The Primary was shrinking and starting to feel a little bit scattered. Hunter and singing time has literally activated people who weren’t coming to come and participate. All you have to do is show up one week and participate with Hunter, and they want to come back. They want to feel the perfect spirit that comes out when he sings.”


Hunter Cragun’s Story

Hunter was born with cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a common virus that infects people of all ages. He has a secondary diagnosis of cerebral palsy and functions at the level of an elementary school child, his parents said.

In the months leading up to his first birthday, his parents realized he wasn’t hitting development milestones typical for a baby his age. Their best guess is that his mother had CMV when she was pregnant with him, which affected his brain development and left him unable to communicate verbally.

“His brain would have stopped maturing during that time period and would be a little bit smaller. Basically, he’s trying to catch up with everything,” his father, Nate Cragun, said. “So his little brain can’t tell his tongue what to do to speak, how to eat and other things.”

Because of cerebral palsy, the left side of Hunter’s body doesn’t doesn’t function as well as his right, and he is deaf in his left ear. For many years, his mother, Pam Cragun, took her son to Primary Children’s Hospital multiple times a week to receive treatment and work with therapists to improve movement.

Feeding him was also difficult and time-consuming for many years. Now at age 23, Hunter still has challenges but can do some things on his own.

Hunter Cragun hugs his little sister Paisley Cragun during Primary at the Inverness Ward in Syracuse, Utah, on April 30, 2023. Photo by Ryan Sun, courtesy of Church News.Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

Although his development has been slow, his parents feel their son has been blessed by Heavenly Father through many priesthood blessing and prayers.

“They never thought he would even walk or sit up, but he’s just doing some remarkable things,” Nate Cragun said.

An outsider might see the Cragun family and wonder if they are frustrated or mad at God because of Hunter’s situation. His parents say they have never had those feelings.

“In his 23 years, my wife has not one time said, ‘This is too hard, I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this,’” Nate Cragun said. “It’s been pretty remarkable to see his sweet spirit and the light in his eyes, even though it’s hard and difficult. He has created a sweetness in our home.”

The Craguns also feel that having Hunter in their family has helped their other four children to be more sensitive, kind and inclusive to others.

New ‘Purpose’ at Church

In recent years, Hunter’s parents noticed their son seemed less excited about attending weekly Church worship services.

“For a while I have felt like Hunter needed a purpose at Church,” Pam Cragun said.

As a friend, Walton was aware of Pam Cragun’s feelings. Cragun also spoke with the bishop. These conversations led to the inspiration for his call to serve in the Primary.

“Hunter loves singing and has always loved music. I felt it was truly inspired,” Pam Cragun said. “He was so excited. He stood and beamed when they sustained him. Even though I don’t think he knew what it entailed, he was so happy.”

Hunter Cragun high fives Eva Morgan after Primary at the Inverness Ward in Syracuse, Utah, on April 30, 2023. Photo by Ryan Sun, courtesy of Church News.Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.


‘The Kids Love Him’

For the last several months, Hunter has been Walton’s right-hand man in the Primary.

He greets the children as they arrive, sings while leading the music and provides a warm smile, fist bump and encouraging word through sign language to each child as they walk out the door. Then he helps the Primary presidency as they clean up and put away the chairs.

“He has responded so well to serving,” Pam Cragun said. “He loves going because he loves serving, and he loves being with the kids and making them smile. It brings him so much joy. I think Sundays are his favorite day of the week now.”

Children who may have been wary around Hunter before are now drawn to him. Since he started serving in the Primary, multiple children have shown up at his home with a kind note or treat expressing their love and appreciation.

“The kids love him,” Pam Cragun said. “This has opened things up where they all understand him now. Even though Hunter can’t speak, they can feel the love that he has for them. It has brought a new bond to such a cute, close-knit Primary.”

Walton agreed.

“There was an instant connection that he was their friend because he’s so inviting and welcoming,” Walton said. “There are no barriers to love and communication, even though there are barriers in terms of him not being able to speak. They aren’t afraid to talk to him. They are cheering him on, and he does the same for them. They are inspired by him and match his enthusiasm. It’s so beautiful to watch.”

As Hunter celebrated his 23rd birthday in March, Walton spotlighted him while teaching the children the song and gospel principles of “I Will Follow God’s Plan” from the Children’s Songbook. As she did, the song’s opening lyrics, “My life is a gift; my life has a plan” took on new meaning.

“It was a testimony to me, not only of Hunter being able to serve and contribute his talents, but also what he has taught our children,” Walton said. “I love that so, so much.”

Hunter Cragun, assistant Primary music leader, looks up as he helps put away the chairs following Primary at the Inverness Ward in Syracuse, Utah, on April 30, 2023. Photo by Ryan Sun, courtesy of Church News.Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.


‘A Place for Everyone’

Those who have witnessed Hunter Cragun’s faithful service in the Primary have marveled and always come away uplifted. They have learned that each person has unique gifts and talents to consecrate in the service of the Lord.

“There is not a cookie-mold to callings, they can be adapted for anyone,” Pam Cragun said. “Sometimes we don’t know a person’s capabilities, but I feel like Heavenly Father does.”

“To me, it shows there is a place for everyone,” said President Brad Poll of the Syracuse Utah West Stake.

Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

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