Lieutenants Kevin and Helen Johnson are partners in ministry and in life. Together they run Aquidneck Island's Salvation Army program and ministry.
Most people know of the Salvation Army and its collection drives utilizing those famous kettle pots during the winter holidays. However, most people don't know these kettle drives are just one facet from efforts that continue year-round.
Kevin and Helen have become good friends of mine over the last year I have known them. It is always funny to hear someone call them Lieutenant, because I first think of them as Pastors.
Being a military spouse, my vision of the military is not connected at all to religion. But don't mistake "the corps," as Kevin and Helen call it, for anything less than an army of people who "give help and hope to the hungry, the homeless and the troubled." They consider themselves, and set out to be, a social army of people who serve and act as humble and yet powerful representatives as "God's modern army."
Getting the Job Done
What the Salvation Army does every day is no small feat for the the needy here on Aquidneck Island, many of whom have come to rely upon their services every month. Many of these people are the working poor and the middle class in Middletown, the toughest hit by recent hard times.
In her unassuming manner, Helen says she is amazed by the generosity and outpouring of support, especially this year, when so many are still struggling.
As she showed me the hundreds of bagged gifts for hundreds of local families recently over the holidays, the giving wasn't just in money or in items but in volunteerism. People took time from their busy lives to sort the gifts and bag them for so many needy families, which was a daunting and time consuming task by all accounts.
As you can see from the pictures here, it took an amazing effort to coordinate the collection, the coalition and distribution.
"This year we are so lucky," Johnson said. "Each child may get three gifts a piece because of the generosity of the community. To some of them, it will be an amazing Christmas."
Johnson told me that the main vehicles for collection of toys were through local or area businesses who donated a great deal, angel tree donations made by individuals through an area collection, large corporate donations, Adopt-A-Family programs run at local churches like Evangelical Free Church in Middletown, area nursing home collections, various banks and schools like the Naval War College, Salve Regina and the Portsmouth Abbey School that collected wonderful coats.
"When I look around this room, it represents the whole island binding together," Johnson said.
Truly, that is not an understatement.
Like Lucy's Hearth, which we chronicled earlier in this series, the Salvation Army is in the largest collection cycle of its fiscal year right now. And in order to fund its ongoing year-round programs, which are becoming increasingly in demand by the community, they will need our support to continue after this high profile season of holiday giving becomes less and less on our minds.
The Red Kettle drive is the main vehicle for the Corps to fund their entire operating budget for the year.
While they are doing slightly better in collections this year, they are $8,000 shy of their goal to date. Still, Johnson is encouraged that Islanders will pitch in.
"The Pennies Really Do Add Up"
"The pennies really do add up," Johnson said. "It's amazing what we can buy through the food bank programs to supplement our food pantry because we can buy food by the pound not like regular consumers who buy things in case lots or individually."
The pantry is open Monday, Wednesday and Fridays from 9 am to 12 pm and has the highest rate of participation on the Island, she said.
"The need in our community is huge," she continued. "We are seeing our programs like the Good Neighbor Energy Fund push its capacity because people are having so much trouble making ends meet as costs rise."
Something has to give and most often people will go without food first, Johnson noted. "Last year we served an average of 10,000 meals in the soup kitchen and 45,000 meals from the food pantry."
Other programs include the kids and teen programs. "We serve a meal for these too and a senior club where we serve a breakfast," Johnson said.
The food pantry has seen a "huge increase" for many reasons, she said, noting that the Salvation Army's pantry is the only one on the island that allows a person to come one time a month, while most pantries on the island allow a person to come once every three months.
"We are client choice, meaning people can shop for their need with some restrictions," she said. "We have an easy check in process and we are one of the only pantries open during the holidays."
New Year Hopes
"We have set our goal higher this year to help more in the pantry and other areas like the Good Neighbor Fund, hoping to bridge the gap that people are facing," Johnson said.
The Salvation Army's social mission is huge, but so vitally important to life here on the Island. But the kettle drive isn't all they need. Their children's programs and soup kitchen need consistent volunteers. A little time once a month can go a long way in the life of this group's activities.
Final Reflections: The Inspiration Comes from Doing
In writing this series, I wanted to inform us all as a community of the need of these two worthy groups because to me, it is like Johnson said, "pennies do add up."
Lots of demands are made on us for money and time throughout the year and especially during the holidays, but the people that local charities such as Lucy's Hearth and the Salvation Army help are right here.
They are your neighbors, even in some of the more posh neighborhoods. As a military wife, I know generosity and I see how volunteerism and service can change a life. Unfortunately, I have also seen how focusing too much on our own problems and our own needs can hurt a life. Isn't that the point of all of those sappy (but awesome) Christmas movies on Lifetime? Not to be too preachy, but if you have already given this year—do a little something unexpected and more if you can.
- Clean out your closet.
- Take down your penny can and empty it out.
- Do something.
Don't do it out of guilt or for any other reason but just to do it. You choose your motivation.
A Success Story
I'll leave you with one last story because the season is filled with them and I apologize for the length of this article. But it's another reason why I wanted to write this piece. Last week a friend emailed a large group of us and told us about a local family who needed a Christmas.
Essentially, despite working hard and doing the right things, some life circumstances came up and hindered a young couple and their two small children in big ways.
So my friend asked for us to consider making a small gift in the form of gently used toys or clothes to the family so they could give their kids a Christmas. The response she got was amazing. People didn't just give used items—they did give those—and they gave so much more as well. Hundreds of dollars in groceries, coupons and gifts flowed in--some of the efforts and gifts were small and some were not. It all added up into an amazing endeavor.
My friend Christina totally inspired me when she wrote, "My only hope is that when you look at this list (of donations) you give all the glory to God! This family has literally nothing and He has provided for them this Christmas! (through these gifts.)" What started as a simple email, one friend reaching out to another to help some neighbors, turned into abundance and bounty. We've all heard stories like this. But do they penetrate and move you?
The needs of these organizations, Lucy's Hearth and the Salvation Army, will extend far beyond Christmas and one person or even one large donation can't meet them alone.
But in coming together—penny by penny or little by little—we as a community can meet them. I hope you will be moved in the new year to meet a need. And that is my wish from the "homefront."