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Salvation Army kettles not meeting goals; programs at risk

Zachary Babic 5 stays close his grandpas he watches Pastor Juan Alarcplay few Christmas songs an accordian Friday The SalvatiArmy

Zachary Babic, 5, stays close to his grandpa as he watches Pastor Juan Alarcon play a few Christmas songs on an accordian Friday at The Salvation Army on Douglas Avenue in Elgin. December 7, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:28AM

ELGIN — It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, and hundreds of needy families had lined up down the block outside the Salvation Army’s Douglas Avenue headquarters in hopes of receiving turkeys and other trimmings needed for a traditional holiday meal.

But when the 200 turkeys all had been given away, much of the line remained.

“It was sad to see the need but even sadder to watch all the food dwindle away as the line of those seeking help grew shorter, then turning those in need away due to the lack of our food donations,” recalls Army office assistant and receptionist, Tammy Gundlach.

As the militarily-organized Christian nonprofit group is running behind on its annual bell-ringing fund drive campaign, Gundlach fears a similar shortfall could force the Army to cut short its array of Christmas programs, too.

With just six paid employees except during the Christmas season, what the Salvation Army calls its “Elgin Citadel Corps” serves a recently increased territory bordered by the McHenry County line on the north, Huntley on the west, South Elgin on the south and Schaumburg on the east. It does this from two “service center” buildings — the headquarters at 316 S. Douglas Ave. in Elgin and a Carpentersville-area building in the Meadowdale Shopping Center along Route 25.

For the past 2 1/2 years, the corps has been under the leadership of husband-and-wife Captains Fred and Nancy Mead.

Fred Mead said the Citadel Corps is in no danger of having to close down. But money is tight and need is great. And one cherished project already has had to be dropped — teaching basic literacy in Spanish to adult Hispanic immigrants who are so uneducated even in their native language that they aren’t able to handle English as a Second Language classes.

Every day

Nancy Mead said that even when it’s not Christmastime, the corps has some ministry going on almost every day:

Exercise classes from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Mondays. Educational programs for adults on Tuesdays. The “Sparks Academy” to build character in young people on Wednesday nights. A “Street Outreach” ministry to the homeless on Friday nights. On Sunday mornings, remembering that this “army” is at heart a Protestant church, a worship service that draws 100-plus people a week.

And from 3-5 p.m. Tuesdays in Carpentersville and 10 a.m.-noon Fridays in Elgin, a mass distribution of food that feeds 200 families every week, which also includes free blood-pressure, blood-sugar and cholesterol screenings, and even a free dental exam. Some of that food comes from individual donations, some from grocery-store donations and some is purchased at low cost from the Northern Illinois Foodbank.

The corps also distributes free clothing from a store-like clothes locker.

The area’s Golden Diners meal-delivery service for shut-ins is also a Salvation Army function, but is handled by a different branch of the Army from its home base in Hemmens Cultural Center. Thrift shops in Bartlett, Huntley and DeKalb also are run by — and benefit only — other corps.

But when Christmas nears, both the activities and the fundraising go into overdrive. Nancy Mead said the corps has these projects on its agenda this month:

At “Christmas Toy Shop” events in Carpentersville on Dec. 18 and in Elgin Dec. 19-20, needy families who have signed up ahead of time can “shop” for toys for their children from age-graded tables; get socks, underwear, one other clothing item and stocking-stuffers for each child; and pick up a Christmas food basket.

“We expect 700 families, with a couple thousand children, to come,” Nancy Mead said. “They signed up last month but now we are putting others on a waiting list.”

Needy families have listed toys and other presents their children would like on “Angel Tree” tags. These have been distributed to employees at participating businesses, and anyone interested also can pick one up at the Salvation Army centers, at Spring Hill Mall or at the Elgin Walmart store. The donor buys one or more of the items listed and brings them back to be given to the family.

“We have an Adopt A Family program, where someone can call and take responsibility for a mom and dad and kids, or a single mom and kids,” Nancy Mead said. “They then purchase gifts for those family members and the gifts will go directly to them rather than becoming part of the overall Toy Shop distribution.”

Salvation Army staffers are visiting the area’s 19 nursing homes and senior-living facilities to sing carols, pass out gifts and have some holiday fun. During a gathering at Elgin’s Oakcrest Residence on Thursday, the leaders began by asking which residents would like to put on angel costumes and which would prefer reindeer antlers.

“A lot of people in these homes don’t have any loved ones to visit them,” Nancy Mead said.

Bell ringers

To pay for all this, and also for much of the January-through-November activities, fundraising also swings into hyperdrive now. Through the well-known red plastic kettles manned by bell ringers outside stores and through mailed-in donations, “during the Christmas season we raise a majority of the money we need to keep running throughout the year,” Fred Mead said.

“This year, about 40 percent of what we needed came from the kettle drive alone,” he said. A percentage of what is raised gets passed on to the national Salvation Army organization, but “most of the donations come in locally and are used locally,” he said.

Fred Mead said the corps raised $254,000 from the kettles last year and has a goal of $325,000 this year. That sounds like an intimidating increase but this year the corps covers a bigger territory and has more kettles, he said.

However, the drive is running behind. As of midweek, Fred Mead said, the kettles had brought in $101,300, compared with $106,000 at this stage of last year’s campaign.

“If you want to get maximum impact from your donation, go to the kettle outside Macy’s at Spring Hill Mall between 4 and 8 p.m.,” Fred Mead said. “Tom Roeser of Otto Engineering has offered to match the money donated there up to $25,000. So your $1 becomes $2. Your $5 becomes $10. Last year, he did the same thing, and we came up a couple thousand dollars short of what we could have had him match.”

It has become traditional for some anonymous benefactors to drop gold coins into the kettles. For example, a Krugerrand valued at $1,700 showed up Nov. 30 in a kettle in Naperville.

Elgin seems to have no gold-coin donors, Nancy Mead said, but “we have found some strange things in the kettles. We got a gold ring, and last year we got a silver tooth. People also drop in things by accident. We once found Viagra pills. We get lots of pocket lint.”

The Elgin-based bell-ringers man 52 kettle locations. Some ringers are volunteers; others are unemployed people whom the corps pays $8.25 an hour.

“By hiring unemployed people, we get them some income. And sometimes this can even lead to them getting a job offer from the store they stood outside of,” Nancy Mead said. “The store manager sees that they’re friendly and responsible and may offer them a job.”

“Doing this makes you feel good,” said 36-year-old kettle volunteer Richard Hayes of Elgin, who makes his living doing home improvement. “The Salvation Army never charges for what they do.”

Alice Harris of Elgin, one of the unemployed, paid bell-ringers, said she would like to get some kind of cashier or office job. But manning a kettle shows her that “people are really nice,” she said. “We say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ and people love to hear that.”

A “Fill the Truck” drive to collect toys for the Christmas Toy Shop also was held Saturday at the Elgin Walmart.

One at a time

Asked what they need from the public besides cash dropped into a red kettle, Nancy Mead answered, “People can volunteer to be a bellringer or to help set up the Christmas Toy Shop. They can adopt a family or take an Angel Tree card. We are in dire need of food and winter coats.

“Sometimes the world’s problems seem so big. But you can come down here to volunteer and change people’s lives one person at a time.”

As she organized Friday’s food distribution, Liza Ayala, the corps’ activities director, said she was inspired into this line of work by her painful childhood.

“My dad was an alcoholic and our mom left him when I was 11. There were six of us but we learned that if you had a few potatoes and a little meat, you could stretch it over several meals,” she said. “One time we had nothing but tomato soup. Not even crackers. But we popped some popcorn and used that like crackers in the soup.”

When that line ran down the block at the pre-Thanksgiving distribution, “We were able to provide 310 families with turkeys or at least some kind of meat,” Ayala said. “We did run out of turkeys but then more came in at the beginning of the next week.

“That’s how the Lord works. The Lord provides.”

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