December 1, 2011 Volume 25, Number 12
SPOTLIGHT ON MISSION
Salvation Army helps thousands find hope
Holiday kettles make an appearance during Army's annual campaign
By Renee Joette Friesen | Special to ChristianWeek
COURTESY THE SALVATION ARMY IN CANADA
HAMILTON, ON - The Christmas of 1999 was especially depressing for Carol Willems.
The single mother of two, who had lived the middle-class dream before her marriage ended suddenly the year before, was alone and had lost custody of her daughter and newborn son.
"In the depths of despair, I succumbed to depression," says Willems. She had been the family's sole income earner, had even helped put her husband through school, yet now she was jobless and forced to pay child support.
Desperate, she went to The Salvation Army in Hamilton, Ontario. But she did not ask for assistance. Instead, Willems signed up as a volunteer.
"It made me feel like I wasn't just sitting around and twiddling my thumbs," she says of her volunteer experience.
But even as she filled her time, she continued to struggle emotionally and financially.
Willems thought she was able to hide her personal challenges from staff and volunteers at The Salvation Army. Then one day her supervisor asked her to drive her car to the back of the building and open up her trunk. It was there that volunteers came out with bags and bags of groceries - enough to fill her bare cupboards and last her until well beyond Christmas.
"I wasn't going to say no; I needed the help," she says.
Humbled by The Salvation Army's compassion and generosity, Willems thanked God, praying, "If You will find a way to get me out of this mess, I will serve You all the days of my life."
Soon after, The Salvation Army asked her to take on a paid role to coordinate a family shelter program for the homeless - a position perfectly suited to her background in social work. Now, more than a decade after she started volunteering, she is the director of emergency shelter services.
"This work healed me; in my brokenness God used me. He has been excessively good to me. He can take any of us from a pit and use us."
Willems recognizes her experience is unique, but says The Salvation Army helps thousands of others with broken lives.
Andrew Burditt, national director of marketing and communications, says despite the fact that Canada is emerging from a global economic recession, more people are relying on food banks.
"During (the recession) we were seeing a 25 per cent increase in terms of demand for our services. That really hasn't gone away," he says, adding The Salvation Army already began receiving requests for Christmas hampers in October. "That's early for us."
According to its recent report, "Restocking the Shelves," one-third of all Salvation Army food banks and feeding programs surveyed saw a drop in food donations, while nearly three-quarters saw a noticeable rise in demand for such food services.
That growing need means donations generated from kettles on street corners and in shopping malls during the Christmas season are more important than ever.
The money raised assists with Salvation Army food banks and Christmas hampers, and helps fund projects throughout the year.
There are more than 2,000 kettles across Canada, and donations generated at any one of them stays in the local community, funding everything from school feeding programs and thrift stores to emergency relief for victims of house fires and natural disasters.
"Every donation brings hope to somebody," says Willems, who has served as a kettle bell-ringer. "This is about helping your neighbourhood community. This is about helping people."