Salvation Army Steps Up to Meet Needs

Operations like food pantries have stayed open, albeit while adapting to social distancing rules.
Salvation Army Steps Up to Meet Needs
The Salvation Army continues to feed its communities, these days from six feet away with curbside drop-offs. (Austin Wideman/Salvation Army)
Catherine Yang

In times of crisis, some people sense danger and run from it toward safety. Others run toward it, mused Kelly French, director of community relations for the Salvation Army in Bradenton, Florida.

It speaks to why their offices have received so many inquiries about volunteering during the pandemic crisis.

"You know, the funny thing is, we've had a spike in calls from people who want to start volunteering for us right now," French said.

Due to social distancing guidelines, the organization hasn't been able to onboard new volunteers. But donations have come in from people wanting to help amid the crisis as well, including a check from a regular donor who gave 10 times the normal amount.

The Salvation Army's mission is to meet human needs, which means that during this crisis, operations such as food pantries have stayed open, albeit while adapting to social distancing rules. This means boxes of to-go meals instead of dining in at big communal tables, and curbside drop-offs of groceries instead of pickups at food pantries.

Salvation Army Maj. Juan Guadalupe passing out food in Bradenton, Fla. (Melissa Fernandez/Salvation Army)
Salvation Army Maj. Juan Guadalupe passing out food in Bradenton, Fla. (Melissa Fernandez/Salvation Army)

And with the loss of jobs during this crisis, the need is increasing.

In Aurora, Illinois, Linda Forney says the Corps's community center is serving people they've never seen before.

"We've doubled the amount of food we give out," Forney said. "Before, we were doing 50–60 families on average during a week. Last week, we did 142." It's been a steady increase, up from 94 the week before.

Forney says that fortunately, the Illinois Food Bank they work with has been able to supply more food so far; she knows other food pantries are staying open, and that schools have started to distribute food as well.

"This is a whole new situation," she said. "I would say a good third are first-timers who've never had to come and ask for food before."

Looking Out for Each Other

That's in addition to deliveries they've made to people who have never contacted the Salvation Army before, including a couple both recovering from cancer and who can't go out, a single mom with three kids, and a family with a mom who tested positive with COVID-19 and is recovering.

Inquiries are humble, Forney says, with some people asking if they need to show proof of their situation—none is needed, and Forney is heartened to see that word of mouth has meant that people who need help are finding it.

"I've been super-proud of the Aurora people who've been coming to our pantry," Forney said. People are abiding by the request that only one member of a family pick up food, and some are going out of their way to pick up groceries for elderly neighbors.

People have been calm and courteous and lining up six feet apart without prompting, she says, and on the rare occasion that someone becomes agitated, others help calm the situation, saying, "It's going to be OK, we're going to get through this."

They've received anonymous checks as well, with a memo saying, "Please help those in need."

"That's a little unusual," Forney said. "We get donations but recently they've been coming in just anonymously."

How people are coming together as a community during a time of social distancing inspires Forney, whose advice to keep positive these days is to eat a healthy diet, swap out your news feed for positive stories, FaceTime your grandkids, and be a good neighbor, from six feet apart.

"If you see a neighbor in need, reach out to us," Forney said.

Consider What's Important

Food and shelter programs are such a core part of the faith-based Salvation Army because one can't think of anything else if such basic needs aren't met, said Chaka Watch in Harlem. In these strange times, huge changes have taken away so many things for so many people, he added, but perhaps a silver lining is that we are forced to consider what is important.

Watch's life looks completely different, for instance. "We had 100 kids that come into the building every day, for after-school programs—they're not coming anymore," he said. He used to spend his time working on many church and community programs, which have been moved online or adapted as everyone is trying to be creative to follow social distancing rules.

"So a lot has changed," he said.

The Harlem community center, like many others, is seeing more and more people coming to pick up food, almost 200 per day now, Watch said.

"That means people have run out of food; they bought food and they've run out of food so now they're coming out again."

But the atmosphere has been more grateful than fearful, and Watch says the messages on his phone are mostly thank yous and happy photos these days, many from people who are reaching out to the Salvation Army for the first time.

He lives with his wife and son, so they are all remembering to be very careful with health and safety. Watch says he also reminds himself that "at the end of the day, it's now how smart you are, how clever you are, it is the grace of God only that can save you."

"There are so many people who love what they do, but they cannot do what they love anymore," he said. "Life is what you make it."

"We have been taken away from everything else that we thought was important," Watch said. As a Christian, as a person, I feel like God is speaking to us, and so, it is my job to be as helpful, to be as encouraging, to spread the message of love to everybody, so that nobody is afraid ... just to be there for others. That's how I personally approach the whole thing."

You're Not Alone

Johanna Pook has worked with communities in disaster relief efforts, so she knows firsthand that once our basic needs are met, there needs to be something more.
Since March 26, the Salvation Army in the Chicago area opened an emotional and spiritual support hotline, which Pook is overseeing. They have been getting calls from 10–15 individuals each day since it was set up.

"We know that people have a need, and we want to be able to meet that," Pook said. "In a time like this, with this pandemic, it affects us emotionally. Our anxiety levels have increased, and fears have increased and rightfully so. Every time we listen to the news we're hoping for good news, and unfortunately, we're not there yet ... All of these factors are just really tapping into our emotions in a negative way.

"We know that, OK, after someone has had a good meal, it doesn't take away the stress level of what we're dealing with," she said. "So being able to make sure that we can go beyond those physical but also to provide that support emotionally and spiritually, is what we aim to do to help us cope better and just be able to face safely these uncertain times in a much more tangible way, but also in a hopeful way."

Likewise, the team members working on these calls support each other in turn.

Some people just want to vent, some want to ask for information about resources, or ask for prayers, and—to Pook's surprise—some people just want to reach out to thank them for their work. People even call back after they've made their requests or said their piece and expressed their gratitude for the team's help. And some even tell the team they're in their prayers, which moved Pook greatly.

"We want everyone to know that, once again, they're not alone. We believe that God is in the midst of all of this, and that he's placed us and other people around to be able to come alongside each other," she said.