By: Katie Sobiech
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way….” a woman adorned from head to toe in winter apparel sang as she shivered, ringing a red bell, in the ice cold outside of a local Wal-Mart.
Year after year, she along with many other volunteers sacrifice their time and comfort every Christmas season for one purpose – to bring in funds to support the Salvation Army.
Occasionally shoppers will throw in their loose change, maybe a dollar or two, as they pass by, but are they aware how big the cause is that they are supporting?
The Salvation Army’s mission doesn’t stop at Christmas. Year round they feed the hungry, visit the elderly and those in jail and serve in a variety of other ways through various programs.
Their efforts span across this nation and in 117 different countries. Thousands of individuals are served from their facility on West Exchange Street in Akron; where they will be celebrating their 125th year this year.
Spirit of Giving
The spirit of giving has certainly hit Akron this year as the Salvation Army recently delivered many toys and gifts to less fortunate families at several different locations.
As you’ve probably guessed, numbers of those in need have gone up. They’ve interviewed 2,680 families this year; 580 more families than last year.
During the season and throughout the year they provide many services, mostly volunteer, including:
A Soup Kitchen, which serves about 400 meals a day, and locals are provided a sit down meal as well as food to take home.
A Day Care for children ages 2-5 that provides lead testing, vision and hearing tests and educational assessments. Many come from low income families and about 40% of the kids in their programs are on medications of some kind.
“We end up with the kids that get thrown out of a lot of other places and they just kind of fall through the cracks,” Captain Jim Betts, a fourth generation Captain, explained.
They call them “Army kids.”
After School Programs are available for children ages 6-14 where they receive tutoring and are taught character building skills, how to play the piano, brass instruments, and to sing and dance.
They also have Booth Manor, a shelter unique within the community in that it allows families to stay together in one unit, whereas others don’t and families are often split up.
Also, for those struggling with addictions, their six month resident program provides food, housing and support. They go through a 12 step Christian based program and attend church services held at the Salvation Army’s very own chapel.
They also have various annual initiatives such as Homeless Connect Day where they recently had 500 people come for services. They provided everything from haircuts to teeth extractions.
One of their off-site initiatives, the Canteen Outreach, allows them to hit the streets with the gospel – stopping at different locations where they know the homeless hang out.
When Captain Betts and volunteers show up in their white van, people come out of the woodwork for their food giveaway.
“Its stunning, the number of folks we see,” he said.
They also give away other items, like socks and underwear, “Which are like gold on the street,” Captain Betts said.
Even more surprising is the number of families with children they find; many who live in their cars. Others park themselves in old stone church doorways, which provide shelter.
“Some guys are living under bridges,” Captain Betts said, “Others in tents or boxes in the woods behind buildings. They’re everywhere.”
Along with food and various items, they offer prayer to whoever is open to it. They also show the people that there are other options and that they don’t have to live like they are. Some take the offer and agree to go through their programs. Others deny the help.
“Moving out of what is familiar to them is scary,” Betts said, “And a lot of the guys have the fear of ‘What if I try and I don’t make it?”
Bridging the Gap
The entire vision for this mission began in 1865 in the east end of London. Its founder, William Booth, a Methodist preacher would preach to people on the streets who none of the churches would talk to, reach out to, or accept.
He began the Christian Mission, reaching out to people on a spiritual and physical level, realizing that they couldn’t hear a spiritual message until their physical needs were met.
This story of reaching out to the destitute and those rejected by society hit close to home several years ago when an Akron man living under a bridge was set on fire. Hearing about the tragedy, Captain Betts and his team went on a search for him, arriving to find his body covered with severe burns.
The homeless man, Lenny King, said that he and a friend had been singing hymns, praying and wondering what they were going to do for dinner that night when the volunteers arrived.
King, a Vietnam vet, has had his share of bad days. Often the victim of senseless violence; he’s been spit on by strangers and faced tragedies such as the death of his daughter and a marriage that fell apart.
Having compassion for King, Betts and his team made a surprise visit the following night only to find some kids trying to beat him and a friend with a lead pipe. When they saw the Salvation Army men march up in uniforms they ran off.
Lenny is now in a veteran’s hospital after living under a bridge for 15 years.
Stories of Hope
Many who come through the doors of the Salvation Army experience breakthroughs in their lives Homer is one of those people. Going through the rehab program turned his life around.
However, though he made it through rehab, there was still one problem; he couldn’t get a job because he was missing an eye due to an industrial accident.
Rather than viewing this as a set back, members of the church congregation at the Salvation Army saw it as a set up to show their love for Homer. They came together, hosting a “Pie for an Eye” auction to get Homer a new eye, as well as a spaghetti dinner where just about everyone who showed up was either homeless or in their rehab program. They raised $2,000 at the spaghetti dinner alone; bringing in enough money for Homers new eye.
“We’re kind of like the island of misfit toys,” Captain Betts explained, “Our folks don’t necessarily fit everywhere in society but they all fit here and its exciting to see.”
One couple who were recently wed in their Chapel met at their soup kitchen Bible study. The bride was given away by one of the homeless gentlemen that had been living in a tent behind a local store and now helps count the income from the kettles.
A couple of weekends ago a Christmas musical was held in their chapel. Over half of the actors were those who have been homeless or who are autistic.
“Our congregation is very eclectic, there are people with PhD’s sitting next to illiterate folks living on the street,” Captain Betts said.
Yet all of them come together.
As you can see, this mission is accomplishing great things in the Akron area and beyond. If you feel called to help, there are many ways you can get involved.
One of their largest fundraisers each year is the Red Kettle Campaign, but if standing out in the cold isn’t for you, you can do it from the comfort of your own home. They’ve now made it possible for individuals and groups to establish red kettles online, which takes about 5 minutes. The individual or group then emails friends and family to help reach their personal goal and they’re done!
Specifically in the Akron area there is a need for help serving in the soup kitchen, teaching extracurricular activities and kids programs, and nursing home visits.
For more information please call their Corporate Office in Akron at (330) 376-7730
“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out,…I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, I’ll fight; while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end.” William Booth, Founder of the Salvation Army