By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
For months the Salvation Army’s recreation building, located behind the Link Centre in Tupelo, has sat empty.
Boxes are stacked in the learning center where last year at this time children, whose families otherwise couldn’t afford it, received after-school tutoring.
The Army had to suspend the tutoring program just prior to the start of school. Decreased donations coupled with increased demand on its social service and feeding programs forced the Army to make an unpleasant decision.
The only activity in the recreation building as of late has been the periodic gatherings of the Salvation Army’s Women’s Auxiliary. The ladies have met over the past year making clay bowls for an annual fundraiser that supports the Army’s efforts to feed the poor. Lately they’ve have had to use space heaters while they work because the Army can’t afford to heat the building.
A recent, nationwide internal survey conducted by the Salvation Army showed that 94 percent of the non-profit’s food programs experienced an increase in need over the past year. The survey also showed big decreases in corporate and private donations.
Today the Tupelo Salvation Army faces a dilemma, trying to offer a hand up to almost anyone who knocks on its door while dealing with financial challenges that would cause most organizations to make drastic cuts.
As the Salvation Army prepares for the 13th Annual Empty Bowls Luncheon on March 9, the largest annual fundraiser benefiting its feeding program, the non-profit finds itself in unprecedented financial straits. Despite its own problems, the Salvation Army continues to feed, clothe and house the poorest and most vulnerable in Northeast Mississippi.
On a cold day in late January, hungry people file into the Tupelo Salvation Army’s gymnasium, which doubles as a dining hall. They’re polite and quiet, waiting for the cooks to summon them to a window where they receive a plastic tray, like those used in school cafeterias.
Today the menu includes pulled pork barbecue, served with English peas, a roll and iced tea. The diners – black and white, male and female, young and old, many wearing backpacks – eat quickly, then return their trays and leave as quietly as they came.
On their way out some pick up personal-size, boxed pizzas stacked in a stainless steel shopping cart, compliments of a local gas station. One man says he’s taking the pizzas to a friend who is homeless and can’t get around.
“We make this stuff available, and we don’t ask too many questions when it comes to food,” says Susan Gilbert, director of social services.
“There’s malnutrition and hunger right here in Tupelo,” adds Maj. Sue Dorman, the Army’s senior officer in Northeast Mississippi.
Last month the Army served more than 4,000 hot meals to residents it had taken in during the freezing weather. That’s in addition to 1,500 meals it served in the daily lunch line as well as the 325 plates it delivered through Meals-on-Wheels.
In 2010 the Salvation Army served 60,000 meals throughout Lee County.
Every day there are new faces at the Carnation Street campus, and it’s been that way for a while.
“We’ve seen a pretty steady up-tick for at least a year, both in our feeding program and in social services,” said Dorman.
Among those getting help through social services include the 21 families the Army helped with electric bills last month, as well as the handful who got help with prescription medication and rent. Then there are the kindnesses folks don’t usually associate with the Army’s work, like the 300 pieces of clothing it gave away last month and the 34 pieces of furniture it gave to families who’d been burned out of their homes.
It all adds up to an expensive operation, one that’s becoming increasingly hard to sustain as the country struggles to emerge from the recession.
Three months into its fiscal year, the Tupelo Salvation Army is down $52,000 from this time last year. Most of that represents a decline in private donations, which make up most of the organization’s budget. In a healthy year the budget would be about $1.2 million.
“People just don’t have it to give,” said Dorman. “I believe the heart and the will to give is there but like us, everybody’s resources are strained.”
In the Army’s nationwide internal survey, titled “Feeding the Need,” 58 percent of respondents, including those in chapters in 30 major cities, reported that monetary donations to their feeding programs either declined or remained the same. Taken together with 94 percent of respondents saying their program fed more people last year, that means the Salvation Army is being asked to do more with less.
According to Dorman, yearly expenses to date for the Tupelo program have gone up $47,000. The reason, she believes, is that as the aftershocks of the recession continue to shake the country, more people are crossing the threshold from just barely making it to needing help. As Dorman put it, they’re “falling between the cracks.”
Thirty-one-year-old Devon Tennyson is a perfect example.
Tennyson was doing well until unforeseen circumstances derailed her life. In 2008 the mother of five lost a well-paying, management-level job at a big-box retailer when she was diagnosed with a form of skin cancer. Then a landscaping business she and her long-time mate started together dried up. Tennyson’s boyfriend eventually left her with numerous bills and five mouths to feed.
For a while she made ends meet tending bar and working as many as three jobs at once, but, in a kind of cruel irony, her patchwork income combined with her assets and the fact that she had a college degree made her overqualified. She had difficulty finding work and getting the financial help she needed. Tennyson was in real danger of losing her home.
“I’ve never been one to give up, but there were times when I thought I just couldn’t take it anymore,” said Tennyson.
In early December, Tennyson, who lives in Guntown, showed up to pay her electric bill with a bucket of change and someone steered her toward the Salvation Army. The Army paid the bill and provided Christmas for Tennyson’s five children, ranging in ages from 3-12.
Today Tennyson works as a legal analyst and office manager for Tupelo attorney Denvil Crowe, who helped her straighten out her finances and save her home.
Tennyson is extremely grateful to the Salvation Army for helping her weather a financial storm that seemed to reach its climax just when her kids were expecting Christmas.
“It’s humbling to have to ask for help, and I think a lot of people have a certain idea, maybe a stereotypical idea, of who receives help from the Salvation Army,” said Tennyson. “To look at me you might not guess I’d need the Angel Tree, but I’m seeing it every day, when people come into this office looking for help and advice. More and more people are falling between the cracks.”
All are welcome
One of the factors that makes the tent so big for the Salvation Army is that it turns almost nobody away. Gilbert and those in social services consider several factors when determining need for financial assistance, but pretty much anybody can have a free meal or coat with no questions asked.
The Red Shield Lodge is meant to be a temporary shelter for the homeless, but sometimes the Army gets residents it just can’t send away.
Thirty-seven-year-old Anthony Downing arrived in mid January. He arrived, that is, when personnel from North Mississippi Medical Center brought him to the lodge after his family abandoned him.
Downing, a diabetic, had his right leg amputated midway up the shin in October because an infection got out of control. When Downing’s family left him at the hospital after a checkup in January he was in dire straits. He was in a wheelchair, had a heart condition and several other medical concerns, and now he was completely alone in the world.
Today Downing enjoys hot food, a soft bed and plenty of companionship while Army employees help him work toward securing housing and disability income.
“I have my own little life here. They treat me with respect. They can’t tell me to sit down because I’m already sitting down,” said Downing, laughing.
The lodge can’t accept anyone with a history of violent behavior, but otherwise, providing there’s space, the door is open to all.
According to Gilbert, the Salvation Army often functions as a safety net for the poor who might slip through the fingers or simply be turned away by other organizations. A young woman nine-months pregnant and, for a while alone, just left the lodge. Last year a mother dropped off her son, just days before his eighteenth birthday, saying she simply couldn’t deal with him anymore.
It’s a challenging, often thankless job Gilbert said, and one that gets harder each day the economy continues to struggle. It’s become almost a cliché, she added, to point out that in the midst of this economy, fundraisers like the Empty Bowls Luncheon are more important than ever, but cliché or not, it’s true.
“We have to have help,” Gilbert said. “We just rely so much on that help, on the kindness and generosity of the good people of this area. There are so many people out there who need us, and it seems like there’s more every day.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– The Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary will hold a pre-Empty Bowls bowl throw and fundraiser supporting the organization’s efforts to feed the hungry.
The event, in honor of recently deceased auxiliary member, Julia Blakey, will be Feb. 26, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Gum Tree Museum of Art.
Area potters will be on hand to help patrons create bowls. Hors d’oeuvres will be served.
Tickets are $25 and may be purchased at the door or in advance at the museum.
The 13th Annual Empty Bowls Luncheon will be March 9, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Tupelo Furniture Market Building V.
Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the door or in advance at Midnite Pottery, Reed’s Gumtree Book Store, the Salvation Army office on Carnation Street, Stone’s Jewelry, Fairpark Salon, Way-Fil Jewelry, A Cook’s Place and the Mall at Barnes Crossing information booth.
Curb-side and take-out orders will be available.