Every year red kettles and Christmas trees covered in angels make their way to the fronts of stores, churches and community centers. The Salvation Army’s bell ringers are an element of the holiday season many people take for granted, but they do a lot more to take care of the community in central Arkansas than people often give them credit for.
The Central Arkansas Area Command branch of The Salvation Army exists to provide for people in need in Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline, Lonoke, White, Perry, Cleburne and Van Buren counties through a variety of programs like the Shelter of Hope, food pantries, community meals, rent and utility assistance and disaster relief programs.
“The Salvation Army does a lot more than homeless aid,” says Cliff McKinney, chairman of the board for The Salvation Army CAAC. “They primarily focus on women and children in need by providing them with shelter. They also focus a lot on trying to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. If someone is about to lose their apartment, The Salvation Army will come in and pay their rent that month or pay their electricity to try to prevent them from entering into homelessness.”
Lately The Salvation Army’s focus has been on trying to connect people with pathways to success. Through case management, The Salvation Army helps clients set goals to address their needs and works with a number of local service providers in specialities including housing, identification, medical insurance, employment and much more.
“The vast majority of people who are homeless are homeless for just a very short period of time,” McKinney says. “With the majority of people, something has just gone wrong in their life. They need time to get back on their feet, and if you can support them and keep them from becoming homeless or help them to find a job, most people can get back up and live a productive life and be very successful.”
More than 20% of annual funding for The Salvation Army is gathered around Christmas time through the use of the red kettle program. But as necessary health precautions during the pandemic have increased the expense of helping those in need, finding volunteers to ring bells has also proven much more difficult.
“Our biggest need right now is people who are willing to volunteer to ring bells,” McKinney says. “A lot of our bell ringers are folks that are more at risk and they don’t feel comfortable right now standing and having people pass by them and put money in a kettle, so we are really down on our number of volunteers. We’re desperately trying to get enough kettles set up and having enough places to have the bells ring.”
Jim Maloch has been involved with The Salvation Army board since 1997. He has helped organize the kettle program for much of that tenure, particularly through his partnership with Second Baptist Church, which, with the help of more than 120 volunteers per year, has raised more than $200,000 since 2000.
“It’s an easy, fun thing for a volunteer to do,” Maloch says. “If they do it, they’ll enjoy it and be of real benefit to a community organization that is trying to touch the ‘least of these’ and the people who need it the most.”
Maloch wholeheartedly believes in the mission of The Salvation Army and its impact on the community, and he is proud to help where he can with volunteer recruitment. The best part of volunteering for him is the personal blessings that come from helping others.
“When someone volunteers, they get more blessings from doing it than from those who actually give,” Maloch says. “When children save up all year to give their change and people whisper to me about how The Salvation Army has helped them personally — there are just a lot of rewards from that. You will find more joy in this than most anything you’ll do during Christmas.”
Another way The Salvation Army works to impact folks during the holidays is through the Angel Tree Program, which provides for hundreds of children, some with parents in incarceration, who wouldn’t have Christmas gifts or meals otherwise. The Salvation Army gets these kids “adopted” through the program and sees to it that they experience the Christmas morning magic.
Georgiana Soderberg is a member of The Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary and has been an instrumental part of organizing the annual Angel Tree program for the past 19 years. She organizes and manages the distribution warehouse where toys are collected before they are distributed to families.
“It helps me focus on what’s important at Christmas,” Soderberg says. “It helps me think about why Christmas is important. Rather than spend my time worrying about baking perfect cookies or buying perfect gifts, I focus more on helping somebody else. I don’t obsess over things that are less important, and it’s so much fun.”
About 50 years ago, she participated in her first Angel Tree program as a volunteer and helped a woman get gifts for her child. Seeing what a positive impact it had on that family made her passionate about the program. When she retired, she started encouraging others to get involved and now has a group of 10-20 people she brings in every year to organize the toys.
“Once you do it, you want to do it again,” Soderberg says. “We know that some child is going to be extremely happy and a parent is going to be relieved. We want to help the moms and dads feel relieved that their kids are taken care of. We are called to be of service, that’s part of what God made us for. Overwhelmingly, the parents are working but just don't have enough to make ends meet.”
The Women’s Auxiliary members are dedicated to helping the nonprofit fulfill its mission to underserved populations through venues including Angel Tree and camp programs for kids. They recently voted to spend a good portion of a fundraiser’s money to furnish two rooms at the shelter.
The Salvation Army hopes to expand its outreach in the coming years, but that will require more help and recognition from the community. The more people can jump in and help, the more people can be reached and the more support can be given to those who need it.
“Over the last 20 years, I have come to appreciate more of what they do and their willingness to serve anyone in the community who needs it regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation,” Soderberg says. “They serve anyone. That’s what attracted me. They meet the client where they are and help them. These people care about folks. It's not just about giving them a food box, it's about helping them where they need help.”