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Salvation Army volunteer lends a  listening ear, even on Christmas Eve

Willie Graves is former chef who now works as volunteer ElgSalvatiArmy six days week 16 hours day. He usually can

Willie Graves is a former chef who now works as a volunteer at the Elgin Salvation Army six days a week, 16 hours a day. He usually can be found in the front lobby helping staff and people in need. December 21, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:13AM

This is another in a series of stories
on people and events that shaped our
communities in 2012.

ELGIN — Mondays through Saturdays, six days a week, 16 hours a day, without getting paid, Willie Graves can be found somewhere in or around the front desk of Elgin’s Salvation Army Citadel Corps building.

And on Christmas Eve, this hulking-but-loving 64-year-old ex-chef was in that same place, functioning as part tour guide, part bouncer and part counselor to whatever broken, wanting, needy or just question-filled person came through the front door of that front-line Christian charity.

“He’s here from 7:30 in the morning until 11 at night,” says Salvation Army Capt. Nancy Mead. “And on Christmas Eve, he won’t leave until we’re all home safe.”

“I go home at 10:30 or 10:45 and clean up and get some rest, and then come back here,” Graves says.

“I used to be a chef. I still get called in to do side jobs now and then, and I get paid for doing that. But my knees and hips started breaking down, so I had to go on disability. I needed something to fill my time.”

So, Graves recalls, he came down to the Salvation Army and talked to the then-commander, Major Ken Nicolai, and started daily volunteering.

“Whatever the captains need done, I do,” he says. “God pays me.”

Always single, Graves lives in the low-income Buena Vista Apartments on Elgin’s southwest side. He spends Sundays at the Elgin Community Church on the northwest side and volunteers at a soup kitchen. He has a brother and a sister in town. But his real family, he admits, is now the Salvation Army staff.

Those people who walk through that door in front of him may be full of hunger, or hurt, or liquor, or anger, or wonder, or generosity.

“I love to see the smiles on people’s faces when they realize someone cares about what happens to them. God has shown me how to have a heart — just to sit back and listen. People here listened to me when I needed to talk to somebody. When I have a problem now, Capt. Fred (Nancy Mead’s husband, Fred Mead) or Capt. Nancy will say, ‘Are you OK?’ and they will sit back and listen to me.”

“Someone was always there for me when I was a child,” says this ex-chef. “Don’t look for nothing in return because God will always take care of you.”

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