A few months before Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in the 1950s, Olga Lastra, her husband and two young sons left the country with the notion they would return shortly. However, time passed, and Lastra discovered her home had been taken over by the Castro-led government. By that time, her husband was working on an assignment as a civil engineer in the United States, and that positive fortune allowed for a smoother transition to a new place to call home.

Adjusting to the United States as the new home base for her family, Lastra decided to take a chance that a local boutique would hire her for work. She was, in fact, hired and quickly became a top salesperson. Her exceptional personality and passion for fashion fueled her work.

Lastra and her husband eventually retired in the Florida Keys, settling into yet another new home. Initially, she volunteered for the local animal shelter and was also a committed caregiver for an elderly woman. While accompanying the woman for typical errands, the duo decided to stop at The Salvation Army to do some shopping. Upon arrival, Lastra mentioned to the store’s manager that if she ever needed any help, she’d be just one phone call away. Shortly after, the manager called Lastra with a plea for assistance, citing an extreme situation with staffing and the need for a helping hand. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lastra has been a steady volunteer at The Salvation Army in Key Largo, Florida, for 27 years. Her love for helping others, coupled with her innate love of fashion, have been a perfect fit for her retirement years. Now 90 years strong, she still volunteers on a consistent basis and many customers, from one-time visitors to recurring seasonal regulars, come in expressly to say hello and visit with Lastra.

She regularly shares her passion for The Salvation Army, saying that the organization has been a salvation for herself. Following the passing of her late husband, she found comfort in her continued work in the store. Always the fashionista herself, Lastra continues to curate and maintain the store’s boutique, upscale handbags and jewelry departments and, in recent days, the store held a celebration for her 90th birthday.

By: Rebecca Corum

To learn more about volunteering with The Salvation Army, please contact your local office. Click here to view a list of locations in Florida.

 

“What is the use of preaching the gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?” General William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army, posed this question in the late 1800s; over 100 years later the question is as relevant today as it was when he presented this challenge to the world.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm, hit Collier County, Florida, on Sept. 10, 2017. Trees toppled onto roofs; other roofs were ripped from homes; exterior shells were shredded, and flooding destroyed floors, walls, ceilings, cabinets, appliances, and furniture. Many residents lost everything.

More than two years later, they are still struggling to rebuild. Families and seniors who were already hard-pressed to put food on the table were exposed to the worst of the devastation. Though previous storm patterns could never have predicted the people least able to recover would be the worst hit, this was the reality for people in southwest Florida, especially in the cities of Immokalee, Copeland, Everglades City, Chokoloskee, and Goodland.

Livelihoods there are primarily based on agriculture and fishing. Men and women at the mercy of Mother Nature to make a living endure in a perpetual state of poverty or near poverty. Resiliency is not in their vocabulary, though persistence, determination, hard work, and survival are the esprit de corps of their very nature.

In keeping with General Booth’s vision for practical living assistance as a real example of Christ’s love, The Salvation Army has a longstanding and powerful policy of disaster assistance to those in need. To that end, Ashley Jones was appointed to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) in 2016 after more than 15 years of responding to natural disasters as a Salvation Army volunteer and staff member.

Jones’s commitment to helping Collier County recover from Hurricane Irma led to partnerships with other humanitarian organizations.

One of these was Team Rubicon, a group dedicated to helping the survivors of natural disasters. Its membership is unique: 70 percent are military veterans, and 20 percent are first responders. It had been sponsored as a VOAD member by Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe, former National Community Relations and Development Secretary of The Salvation Army. Led by former service personnel whose commitment to serve is deep in their DNA, Team Rubicon celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2020.

Because of Jones’ reputation for excellence, knowledge and practical experience, David Venables, Team Rubicon’s Deputy Director of Rebuild Operations, knew that by partnering and building on the strengths of the two organizations, they could repair and rebuild homes throughout Collier County.

Team Rubicon has more than 100,000 volunteers. They’re run through a training program that covers “muck and gut” cleaning up, roof tarping, tree sawing, heavy equipment operations and damage assessment, among other topics. Before any can deploy – whether to small-scale flooding or a massive fire response – they must pass background checks and complete two FEMA classes in the National Incident Management System.

Upon completion of “basic training,” volunteers earn their badge of honor on their first deployment – a gray T-shirt with the Team Rubicon logo and a “space bar” for their names or call signs.

It isn’t the shirt, but the sweat, dirt and sometimes blood that soaks the shirt, that show these heroes offer hope through the physically demanding work of responding to natural disasters.

There’s a deep desire to provide purpose and comradeship post-service within the organization. Given the reality of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives – veteran suicides have a higher annual death toll than active-service combat casualties – the Clay Hunt Fellowship Cohort Program was born. In the spring of 2018, the eighth round of class members was selected from hundreds of applicants. The eight members of “Cohort 8” would have a profound and lasting impact on Collier County, particularly the town of Immokalee.

Team Rubicon committed to a one-year partnership with The Salvation Army. The morning of Sept. 17, 2018, found the Cohort 8 team at the Disaster Assistance Center Naples of The Salvation Army.

Repair and rebuild training began immediately as disaster case managers of The Salvation Army provided the requests for help from local families and seniors. Some sought repairs; some, funds for roof replacements; and some, total demolitions and rebuilds of their homes.

In the end, 124 residents benefited. Families and seniors who had no hope and no options, who had no insurance, inadequate FEMA assistance and certainly no savings accounts from which to rebuild their lives, received not only safe and comfortable homes but security, safety, peace of mind and a renewed spirit of hope. The Cohort 8 team led 185 “Gray Shirt” volunteers repairing 40 residences and funding repairs on an additional 33 dwellings, thereby turning hurricane victims into survivors.

A new component to Team Rubicon’s long list of services was developed at the Florida rebuild. Working with Paradise Coast Builders, a local partner with The Salvation Army repair program, total rebuilds were initiated. In collaboration with owner Gene Silguero, the Cohort 8 team built two homes from the ground up. Where complete devastation had shattered the lives of two families, the renewed hope, resiliency of spirit and simple, safe living conditions now stood strong.

The spirit of service and championing of recovery for families following a disaster is the heart of both The Salvation Army and Team Rubicon. These two committed organizations have partnered successfully, bringing together all aspects of humanitarian aid in disaster response and recovery. Their heart to turn Hurricane Irma victims into thriving survivors has changed the lives of families and seniors and replaced trauma with hope for the communities of Collier County.

Lisa Loren is a long-term recovery coordinator with the Naples, Florida, Corps. Original story appears in The Southern Spirit

For more information on The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services in Florida, please click here

Gladys Aboude came to this country from Venezuela in 2015, accompanied by her two children. A woman of Hispanic origin, Aboude knew little about life in the United States and had to find her own way.

She did not know what The Salvation Army was, and she knew nothing of its mission and work. When she saw a flyer advertising Salvation Army music classes, she checked into it. When she realized that the classes were free, she decided to register her children.

As her children became involved in the music classes, her awareness of The Salvation Army began to grow. She learned it had nothing to do with the military and was actually a non-profit Christian organization. She wanted to know more about The Salvation Army, and that’s how Aboude began attending her local corps (church) in Florida and became part of a beautiful family of Salvationists (church members).

Meanwhile, her children were not only receiving music lessons, they were learning the Word of God. Gladys said she began to realize that as her children were being blessed through their involvement at the church, she was receiving a blessing herself.

“Sometimes I felt like I was in the center of an earthquake, but I felt my rock in this church. I feel safe there,” she said.

“Being an immigrant without the help of The Salvation Army is not easy. Educating children, solving problems – there are many things to do, and this church has given me a lot of help,” Aboude said. “Here, I feel relaxed. I feel safe, here I have sisters, I feel at home. A house can be anywhere, but a home is just The Salvation Army.”

By: Libia Socorro

To learn more about The Salvation Army’s music programs, click here.

With the holiday season approaching and the potential for colder temperatures, a fourth-grade student named Zoey Brown sprang into action.

Zoey, who attends PVPV-Rawlings Elementary School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, was inspired by The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program and, with a bit of help from her family, she created the “Tree of Warmth,” attracting attention from across the Jacksonville area.

Zoey, whose grandmother, Pam Brown, is the sister of Major Candice Biggers, drew her initial inspiration from an otherwise innocuous conversation during a family dinner. Majors Keath and Candice Biggers are the administrators of The Salvation Army’s programs and services in northeast Florida.

“From my understanding, the trigger for this initiative was a conversation we were having during dinner with Pam, her husband, Steve, and their grandchildren,” said Major Keath Biggers.

“We were discussing the Angel Tree, and one of the children, Bronx, began calling it the ‘Homeless Tree’ by mistake. We shared how cool it was that he called it that, and how it would be great if something could come from his ‘mistake.’ Out of the mouths of babes – although he’s in elementary school – came an inspiration that the Brown family took to make a ‘Homeless Tree’ expression into the ‘Tree of Warmth,’ providing clothing accessories to protect against the cold.”

From there, Zoey urged her relatives to help, and the family purchased a Christmas tree, along with gloves, hats, and socks. They used the items to set up the “Tree of Warmth” at The Salvation Army Towers Center of Hope in Jacksonville. Since then, hundreds of winter items have been hung on the tree for shelter residents and homeless individuals to take and use to stay warm during the cold-weather season in the region.

“Several hundred men, women and children have already been recipients of the tree, and it will continue serving during the winter months, especially when the temperature drops those cold nights,” Major Biggers said. “We thank God for Zoey, Bronx and the family making this a reality and a great service to those we serve in Jacksonville.”

Zoey’s family has been a long-time adopter of angels through the Angel Tree program and, with that backdrop of experience and the familial connection, the pathway was clear. Still, the inspiration was centered on improving the lives of others by any possible means.

“Knowing that you truly can make a difference in someone’s life is huge,” said Pam Brown. “I want the children to grow up feeling that way. I want them to know how wonderful it feels to help others. We can’t thank Candy and Keath enough for allowing the children to do this and helping them to get it set up. It really means so much to our family to participate in giving back.”

By: Brad Rowland, original article

By: Brad Rowland

With Hurricanes Hermine, Irma and Michael making landfall in the area within the last half-decade, The Salvation Army of Tallahassee, Florida, is all too familiar with on-the-ground disaster work. With that as the backdrop, The Salvation Army saw an opportunity to both maintain its readiness for emergency disaster services (EDS) and serve the population of Leon, Gadsden, and Wakulla counties on a regular basis.

The result is the “Feed the Need” program, deploying each week to serve hot meals in the community and address an emerging local issue of food insecurity. Simultaneously, these deployments allow The Salvation Army to stay sharp, expanding a volunteer base and maintaining crucial equipment for a time when an immediate need arises.

“Our goals for ‘Feed The Need’ are two-fold,” said Julie Smith, Social Services Program Coordinator in Tallahassee. “First, we can meet the needs of people in our community that are in need of a hot meal. The other side is that the program is operated by our EDS volunteers. There is a lot that goes into it and there is a lot that people can learn by doing, rather than only going through the typical training, even if that part is also necessary.”

In addition to vital disaster response training that must take place with any volunteer, the “Feed the Need” program allows for a hands-on experience that also opens the door for regular engagement with The Salvation Army. Four teams of four individuals operate on a rotating basis, going into the community on Thursdays to serve after important preparation takes place. There are four distinct positions held by team members, ranging from crew chief to food service specialist, and deployment locations are predetermined, in conjunction with social services, to meet the greatest local need.

“This is a great way for us to meet a need in the community but also to simply be prepared for the future,” said Lieutenant Ryan Meo, Salvation Army Administrator. “We’re praised often for our response times in The Salvation Army and how quickly we’re able to respond on the ground after an incident. With that said, people don’t always realize the work that went in before it and all of the training and team building it takes to do it well.”

The program launched in 2018 on a four-month basis, experiencing real success both in volunteer recruitment and critical service to the community. After a brief hiatus, “Feed the Need” launched in August 2019 with an expanded, four-team format, and plans include a year-round utilization.

Early returns have been exceedingly positive for volunteer engagement and the overall impact of the program and, with the dual purpose of aiding those with immediate needs, success is being achieved.

“These people are now ready to go when an incident occurs and, in the process, we’re serving our community,” says Smith. “This has motivated individuals in a fantastic way and people are getting involved.”

“I think our disaster services program is uniquely able to engage stakeholders in the community as volunteers that other programs and services don’t always seem to reach,” Lieutenant Meo said. “Our disaster volunteers are sometimes people that we aren’t able to engage with in other ways and, when we’re able to allow people to be a part of The Salvation Army through a program like this, people serve with a sense of agency.”

To learn more about The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services, please click here

Mejean had always loved everything about space, NASA, and technology, but her dream to go to college kept getting postponed.

First, she began a career in law enforcement to help her family with finances, and then she became a mother of two. She always held on to her dream of becoming an engineer and joining NASA, though. She decided to pursue her dream shortly after becoming a mom.

Her family had always been “just okay” living paycheck to paycheck, but after Mejean quit her job to become a full-time student, things became harder for her family. Her husband, Ray, became the sole breadwinner.

Then tragedy struck.

Mejean was hit by a car. Ray quit his job immediately to take care of his wife and tend to her every need. At the time, Mejean was a University of Houston student pursuing a computer engineering degree. The bills began to pile up, and their finances spiraled out of control. They lost everything.

“We didn’t have a car, and we had to depend on the bus to get everywhere,” said Mejean. “At one point, I had to make the decision, am I going to make it to class, or am I going to have enough money to eat?”

Eventually, the family could not pay bills or rent, and the electricity was cut off. They had to move out of the apartment they’d called home for eight years. That is when Mejean did a Google search to find a shelter, and she found The Salvation Army Family Residence. Mejean and her family moved into Family Residence, and things began to come together for the family.

“Everything we needed was there, and I don’t know if I would have had that anywhere else,” explained Mejean. “They talked to us about nutrition, meal planning, finances, and budgeting. I was even seeing a doctor regularly for the first time in 10 years.”

The Salvation Army provided Mejean with a safe space to breathe, self-evaluate and process everything that was happening. When Mejean was ready, The Salvation Army connected her with the United Way who assisted the family with career placement, apartment down payment assistance, and furnishing their first apartment.

“What I remember most about [The Salvation Army] Family Residence is how great they were with my kids. The kids loved their time there. They remember playing guitar with First Baptist Church, playing games, and going on field trips to Cirque du Soleil.”

Mejean was able to go back to school and went on to graduate in summer 2018, with a job waiting for her at NASA. Currently, Mejean is a Linux developer and configuration management analyst for NASA at the Johnson Space Center.

“People think you are brave when you go through things like this, but when you’re actually going through this, you don’t feel brave. When I moved into [The Salvation Army] Family Residence, I was falling into pieces. But, I left Family Residence with resources and an entire village to help my family and me get to where we are now.”

To help us continue to serve people like Mejean, consider making a donation at www.SalvationArmyFlorida.org/give.

Richard has fond memories of going to parks as a child. He still can recall every detail of the ones that are most special to him. When he took a tour of The Salvation Army’s Towers Center of Hope and the Red Shield Lodge shelter for women and families in Jacksonville, Florida, the playground made an impression on him – but not for the right reasons.

It was old, in disrepair and clearly in need of some love. After he went home, the playground kept coming up in his mind. Finally, he decided that he needed to do something about it.

“I went home, and I guess it was two or three days before I started thinking about it again,” Richard said. “And I thought, you know, I could so something that would be better. I made my proposal, it was accepted, and here we are today.”

Richard could have just written a check and felt good about the difference he made. But he isn’t that kind of fellow. He researched the best playgrounds and the best building materials and imagined what would provide the best playground experience for the children, drawing from his own happy memories. When the time came to tear out the old playground and build the new, Richard put in hours of his own sweat equity.

The result of his labor of love is incredible. Hope Park is now a vibrant and engaging playground of the highest quality. The children who stay at the Red Shield Lodge now bound out of the doors and play with abandon on a playground created with an enormous level of care. Richard designed the entire experience of the playground with intention.

“What I tried to do here was to incorporate some of the things that I remember from the days that I visited parks,” he said. “We’ve incorporated a mural on the perimeter wall which has some phrases and inspirational words that hopefully the children and parents can take with them. Maybe it will be inspirational enough that it will change their lives a little bit.”

Hope Park is not the only thing Richard has created that will change the lives of shelter residents and other Salvation Army clients in the Jacksonville area. He is also providing funding through his two endowments to enable veterans and other adult clients to continue their education or job skills training so they can build a better life. Richard’s sustaining gifts support The Salvation Army’s local Pathway of Hope program that offers participants the opportunity to break the cycle of generational poverty. The overarching goal of the program is to provide participants the order to become more stable and self-sufficient. In addition to creating Hope Park, Richard has also created a third endowment to provide for the future maintenance of the park, ensuring its preservation.

At the center of the Hope Park project for Richard, from the start, was the children.

“Really, the kids here are the innocent victims of their particular situation,” he said. “I thought if I could turn a frown into a smile, that would be an achievement. Who knows, maybe they’ll be brought back someday having remembered the good times that they had here and want to be a part of this organization in some fashion. You never know where things like this will lead.”

By: Antoinette Vitale

The Salvation Army Pathway of Hope initiative serves families in need

The family was homeless: Brian was living in a car with the three boys while Hannah was staying elsewhere. There just wasn’t space for all of them to be together. Dealing with ongoing health issues, Brian was unable to work consistently, so Hannah had to be available to look after him and the children. They were without hope and couldn’t see a way out of their situation.

The Salvation Army received a referral for the family from a partner agency, both organizations have been involved with the family ever since.

“The Salvation Army was able to help right away,” Hannah said.

Christy, their Salvation Army case manager, developed a personalized action plan and meets with them regularly. “They were an ideal fit for Pathway of Hope, a nationwide Salvation Army initiative that assists families, ultimately helping them to be self-sufficient,” Christy said.

She helped Brian apply for disability benefits and continues to meet with the family twice each month. “Hannah is working as a bus driver for the school district, securing a steady income and health benefits for the first time. Once they receive disability payments, the family will reach a new level of financial security and be able to plan for the future,” says Christy.

Additionally, the partner ministry continues to provide financial support and a coach, who is like an emotional cheerleader, and also meets with the family regularly.

It’s been really helpful to have people to talk about what is going on in life. I’m not used to that kind of support network,” Hannah said. “I feel like there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel and I’m learning to deal with stress and pressure in a completely new way.

“We’re living paycheck to paycheck, but that’s OK. I’m hoping we will soon have a little money left in our account at the end of each month,” she said. “I want to eventually take the kids on vacation and do stuff other people do. For now, we’re paying the bills and have a roof over our heads.”

Hannah said she is grateful for The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope program. “They helped pick us up and kept us working toward our goals,” she said. “I want to say ‘thank you’ to The Salvation Army for being there for us.”

Find out more information The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope initiative HERE.

To help The Salvation Army continue to serve families in need in your community, GIVE TODAY.

Florida Camp Keystone Conservatory Dedication

For three decades, The Salvation Army has hosted the Longino Music Conservatory at Camp Keystone for children across the state of Florida, centrally operating in a building constructed in 1990. In late June 2019, current leadership joined forces with dignitaries from the past in dedicating a new, state-of-the-art facility.

“Today, we dedicate this house of glad remembrance for the youth of the Florida Division to gather to do three things,” said Commissioner John Busby, retired national commander and former divisional commander. “First, to improve their musical ability; second, to draw closer to their Heavenly Father; and third, to surrender their enhanced musicianship, developed here, to his honor and glory.”

The new building, constructed on the site of the old structure, includes purposely dedicated space for creative arts, percussion, vocal training, brass instrumentation and recital/concert hosting. In conjunction with the opening of the space, the final concert of The Salvation Army’s Florida Music Institute (FMI) took place, with six bands, five choruses and three creative arts ensembles comprising nearly 200 young people performing in a moving and uplifting way.

Within the dedication ceremony, thank-you messages were distributed to those who took part and FMI delegates commemorated the event with an artistic tribute. Stirring testimonies came to light, citing the impact that the division’s music programs have made and looking ahead to what is a bright future.

“I believe with all of my heart that this is a life-changing program,” said Major Elizabeth Birks, divisional secretary for business. “I can attest to the personal impact it had on my children and what I’ve seen myself. It’s an incredible blessing to see these young people rehearse, perform and grow, and we’re so grateful to all who made this project a dream come true.”

“As a product of The Salvation Army’s music programs myself, I’m excited for the opportunities this new facility will open up for our young people,” said Darryl Crossland, assistant divisional music director. “When children see an investment being made in their future in such a way, it gives them confidence to keep pursuing their dreams.”

The division’s Longino Senior Conservatory program began just hours after completion of FMI and the new facility is being utilized in continuous fashion, all with an eye toward the glory of God and worship through the arts.

“It’s a red-letter day for the Florida Division,” said Lt. Colonel Ken Luyk, divisional commander. “We’re here to celebrate the progress being made but, really, what it’s about is discipleship through musicianship and artistry. All of those are expressions of worship unto the Lord, and that’s why we’re here.”

To learn more about the programs offered for children in your local community, click here to find the location nearest to you.

 

By: Brad Rowland

ray kinder hope for the future

 

Love and acceptance helps Florida man reconnect with hope

Just a few months ago, Ray Kinder could not imagine being clean, being out of jail, being hopeful. When you look at him today, you could not, for one minute, imagine him being anything but.

Ray grew up in a church-going family, but all was not right. His father was a career criminal, coming and going from prison. When his father was not in jail, he was abusing his mother and modeling the alcoholic lifestyle. He eventually ended up with a life sentence for armed robbery. People would speak over Ray that he would be just like his dad. It had its effects.

Ray was in juvenile detention 12 times. He got addicted to drugs in middle school and continued to make bad choices for the next two and a half decades. Kinder was in jail, some maximum-security ones, 23 times. Each jail time was just a pause from his crack addiction, and the pause button would be reset when he got out.

“My reality was too hard to take,” he said. “I knew how much pain I was causing my mom, my family. It just pushed me deeper into addiction. It was the loneliest, most isolating, tumultuous nightmare. I was just a zombie that didn’t care about anything. I stepped off the cliff into hopelessness.”

Last year, while out on bond, Ray went to visit his aunt. He was totally out of his mind, high and incoherent. His aunt called the police, who took him to a local addiction recovery program. While there, he learned of The Salvation Army. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he was willing to give The Salvation Army a try.

When Ryan from The Salvation Army, came to pick him up a few days later, Kinder’s brain told him not to get on the bus. He said something, maybe God, pushed him to get on the bus.

Ryan told him everything was going to be OK, this was a new beginning for him, and he was going to find his purpose and a plan. Ryan was his first exposure to the love and acceptance that he was about to receive.

During December, Ray volunteered to help pick up Angel Tree gifts and said he “overdosed on the love” that was shown to him at each location. He also realized that at The Salvation Army, he was surrounded by people who truly understood him and his addiction. He was also among other people who were just like him. He “was not as unique as (he) thought. They showed me there was a way out I could never see before. There is a reason they call this the Center of Hope; I do have hope now.”

Kinder is taking things one day at a time. He remarked that “The Salvation Army gave me my hope back; it saved my life. If God can do this for someone like me, he can do this for anyone.” Kinder is protective of the “precious and valuable gift he has been given and is not going to give it up.”

The biggest challenge for Ray now is employment. He will commence soon and is praying someone will give him a chance.

His advice in the meantime for others like him: “If you think for one second that your life is gone and you’ve tried everything else in life, but it never worked for you, there is a place, and the name of this place is The Salvation Army. If you are truly ready to live, give this place a try.”