Salvation Army during a pandemic: 'We're serving people we've never served before'
By LEWIS KAMB | The Seattle Times | Published: December 25, 2020
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SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — Abbas Abbas was new to the country, with a toddler son and mounting household bills, when he first saw the sign in his East Bellevue neighborhood that read "Salvation Army."
"I saw 'Army,' and thought soldier people," Abbas, 34, recently recalled. "My wife explained that's where people get help."
Since that day in 2014, Abbas and his family occasionally have turned to the venerable charitable organization for help with rent and utility bills and for food, clothes and other essentials. This year, amid the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Abbas and his family's needs have only grown.
He and his wife, Hassanati, 32, both immigrants from Tanzania, now have three sons, Salim, 7, Saleh, 6, and Salaah, 2, and have moved to a home in Redmond. While his wife's job as a medical assistant has remained steady, Abbas' work as a food preparer and driver for a Redmond catering company dwindled as the economy slowed. The 16 hours of overtime he'd regularly work each week to earn extra income, needed to help his family get by, has vanished this year. While his paycheck shrank, his bills climbed.
"It's really tough," Abbas said. "You know, for diapers, each box is like $43? It's so much money."
Since February, The Salvation Army has helped Abbas fill holes in his family's budget, covering diaper costs and providing clothes. Abbas also recently applied for the charity's help in paying an outstanding electric bill of more than $500.
Abbas' family doesn't always qualify for assistance from The Salvation Army, which considers whether a household has previously received assistance and how it compares to federal poverty levels. "But they always give me an option, and that means hope," he said.
Thousands of stories like Abbas' are told each day at The Salvation Army's service centers, food pantries, homeless shelters, addiction rehabilitation facilities and various other programs and services for people in crisis throughout King County and the Northwest, the nonprofit's officials said.
The Salvation Army, one of 12 agencies benefiting from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, provided food, shelter, rent and utility assistance, programs for youths, domestic violence victims and addiction recovery, and other emergency services to more than 177,000 people in King County last year, according to the nonprofit's annual report. That included providing more than 800 shelter beds per day for the homeless, assisting more than 800 people into permanent housing and helping nearly 1,900 families avoid eviction from their homes.
This year, while the coronavirus pandemic forced the organization to adjust some programs and dealt a blow to its typical fundraising efforts, the public's demand for services has only skyrocketed, officials said.
"What's different this year is we're serving people we've never served before," said Capt. Jonathan Harvey, general secretary of The Salvation Army's Northwest Division. "Even some of our past donors are telling us, 'Wow, I've dropped money in your kettles before, but I never thought I'd be in a position where I would need your help.' But what this pandemic has done is impacted so many people's lives and livelihoods."
Public health restrictions and concerns drove the organization to cancel some services, such as after-school programs. But it also allowed it to pivot, providing and enhancing other programs that could better serve the public's needs, Harvey said.
"We've recognized the value and importance of meeting people where they are and where their needs exist," he said. "And that means that we've been making some of our programs more mobile."
The organization's "Street Level" program, launched two years ago in South Seattle to help homeless people living in vehicles, is one example. Two Salvation Army volunteers in a specialized service van meet people on streets and in parking areas where they've taken up residence. From the van, the volunteers provide a one-stop shop for case management that streamlines the process of finding living options without requiring individuals to come into an office or face bureaucratic steps that often become obstacles, Harvey said.
"We've had over 300 people who've been permanently housed as result of this program," he said. "It's way more efficient and cost-effective."
Recent social-distancing requirements have only further demonstrated the program's utility, Harvey added, and The Salvation Army plans to replicate Street Level in other states.
Such successes have been tempered by setbacks to fundraising efforts. The Salvation Army's ubiquitous red kettles, with volunteer bell-ringers soliciting holiday donations, largely have vanished this year from grocery stores and other businesses due to health precautions. Red kettles and other fundraising efforts have moved online, but some annual events that raised thousands of dollars had to be canceled. Donations so far are lagging in 2020 compared to typical years, officials said.
Longtime Seattle volunteer Todd Stiller, a marketing director for Lumen, the telecommunications company formerly known as CenturyLink, has participated in and helped lead workplace fundraising efforts for The Salvation Army since 2009. Last year, the annual golf tournament raised $15,000, but the event had to be canceled this year, he said. In its place, Stiller is leading a digital campaign that had raised about $5,123 in donations as of Dec. 22.
"Unfortunately, we're not doing as well this year," he said. "It's a lot tougher to get people to give when I can't be out in front of them, telling them all the good things their donations can do."
Despite the pandemic, Stiller and his wife joined volunteers at the Lumen Field Event Center in Sodo again this year, helping to fulfill children's Christmas lists from a cache of toys donated through The Salvation Army's annual holiday toy drive. Due to social-distancing precautions, volunteers, who typically lead families through a makeshift toy store to make selections, served more as runners this year. They took and filled lists, bringing toys out to families waiting in cars.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm nervous about coming into contact with so many people," Stiller said ahead of the event. "But it's so rewarding. And I think this year, more than ever, the need is there. There's probably going to be far fewer of us than were there in the past."
For families like Abbas', the toys received through The Salvation Army have a profound impact on the holidays. In years past, Abbas' boys have received a bicycle, a scooter, a jacket, running shoes, "even pajamas for me," he said.
"Without them, I don't know where I go," Abbas said.
Last Friday, on his day off from work, Abbas drove to his local Salvation Army in Bellevue's Crossroads neighborhood to pick up this year's toys.
"I hide them and don't tell them what we get," he said. "Then, we all open everything on Christmas Day together. Whatever gifts we get, we feel very lucky."
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