Monday, July 21, 2008

"Not just around Christmastime": Local Salvation Army Lives the Gospel

You've seen them in front of stores around the holidays - all bundled up, ringing those bells.

Maybe you've even tossed in some spare change. Among all the extravagance and commercialism, they serve as a stark reminder that there are many people who can barely even afford to eat.

They are the Salvation Army. And if there's one thing Major B. Bryan Smith wants people to know, it's that they're not just around at Christmastime.

He, along with his wife, Major Beverly Smith, direct the 117 year-old Lancaster County chapter, headquartered on South Queen Street.

NewsLanc visited their impressive facility, Monday, as part of its ongoing effort to uncover the inner workings of Lancaster - in this case, Lancaster's hidden treasures.

Fundraising and food collection continue year-round, Smith points out. Private donations constitute virtually all of the local chapter's $1.9 million annual budget.

This charity enables such services as the food assistance program, the clothes bank, the Latchkey children's daycare program, the New Beginnings adult rehabilitation program, a kids summer camp, social services referral, and chapel.

Like Water Street Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army is a religious, not-for-profit organization associated with evangelical, Protestant Christianity.

Unlike Water Street Rescue Mission, however, the Salvation Army is does not require chapel attendance for almost any of its services.

"There is no compulsion for you to receive services based on any kind of profession of faith," Smith said. "We feel that the giving of food or the giving of time - that that is in and of itself a ministry."

He said that William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, used to say, "You can't preach to a person while their stomach is growling."

Nevertheless, the Army - and Smith himself - feels very strongly that their activities are commanded and sustained by God.

So how busy are they down on South Queen Street? Christy Salkeld, the Lancaster Salvation Army's Family Services Coordinator, says that they see at least 150 people a week.

In the Latchkey daycare program, the Salvation Army partners with a number of nearby elementary schools to provide before and after-school care for children whose parents are unable to immediately pick them up. They participate in recreational activities, get help with homework, learn how to help their parents or guardians with cooking and house chores, and even get breakfast and snacks. And not just any breakfast, says Melissa Schload, who directs the program. Good breakfasts. Pancakes, waffles, and donuts.

And the children have access to superb facilities including a recently-completed gymnasium, modern classrooms, and a computer lab. The 15 Dell computers were purchased with a $25,000 grant from the Ronald McDonald Foundation in 2001.

The Salvation Army also has a spiritual support group called New Beginnings for adults recovering from addictions. Right now, the program has 15 men, who live in on-campus housing and pay a modest rent. Clients are often recruited to the program after graduating from other, more physically-palliative, rehabilitation programs. This is the only program for which chapel attendance is mandatory.

The Salvation Army does not provide emergency shelter or ready-made meals. For those services, clients are referred to organizations like Water Street, the Community Homeless Outreach Center, and the Council of Churches.

Its canned goods and clothing drives are aimed towards alleviating the plight of struggling low-income families.

Smith explained that while the army does attempt to determine an individual's level of need, they certainly don't interrogate someone asking for the basic necessities.

Not all of the Salvation Army's services are on-site either. They are quick to mobilize field units when disaster strikes.

Indeed, the Salvation Army was one of the first relief organizations on the scene during both the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's landfall near New Orleans in August 2005.

Locally, Smith says, they have provided supplies to emergency personnel responding to such events as missing person searches in the Susquehanna River, and the Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse shooting of 2006.

The Lancaster Salvation Army raised roughly $535,000 in its Christmas fundraising drive last year. Smith thinks the need will be even greater this winter season with recent increases in the price of oil.

The Lancaster Salvation Army employs about 33 staff. Major Smith is a graduate of a two-year seminary program all Salvation Army officers must complete in order to be commissioned. He also holds a degree in social work - as do many of his staff.