Wake County’s chapter of The Salvation Army offers broad services with a local heart

by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by S.P. Murray

Starting November 23, volunteers stand with The Salvation Army’s signature red kettles, ringing bells outside more than 60 grocery and Walmart stores around Wake County. For many, that sound marks the dawn of the holiday season.

At one of those locations, a Raleigh woman will slide a few folded dollars into a kettle, as she has done each year since her family lost everything in a fire. When that happened, The Salvation Army provided her and her children with food, clothing and gifts. She has vowed that she will never again buy a single Christmas present until she puts money into a red kettle. Her story is one of redemption, thanks to The Salvation Army, which exists to meet human need wherever, whenever and however possible.

This year, The Salvation Army of Wake County, which has been operating since 1887, will provide relief for over 100,000 individuals in our area. Shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry and programs for at-risk youth constitute only a fraction of their work. There’s also Project FIGHT, which aids victims of human trafficking with immediate care and comprehensive case management. Project CATCH, Community Action Targeting Children who are Homeless, seeks to support and maximize the potential of children experiencing homelessness. There are summer camps, athletic programs, tutoring, parenting workshops, companionship for the elderly and much more, all made possible by generous donors and dedicated volunteers.

Shana Filter spent years driving past The Salvation Army’s Judy D. Zelnak Center of Hope every day, unaware of the transformative work happening inside. Now, she’s the Director of Development. “I am extremely proud to be here,” she says, of the building that provides shelter for more than 100 women and children experiencing homelessness, including those fleeing domestic violence. “I’m so motivated to do this work, to raise as much money as possible in order to continue our incredible impact.”

Filter says that their work often deals with widespread, long-term issues—but sometimes, it’s as simple as immediate relief for an empty belly. Each week, Monday through Friday, an average of 60 people per night sit down to a free meal at the Salvation Army on Capital Boulevard. “There are no requirements or proof of identification necessary,” says Katie Ward, Director of Social Ministries. “The Soupline provides a warm meal for anyone in need.” Additionally, more than 50 bags of food are distributed each week to families and individuals fighting hunger. The Salvation Army also runs two Family Stores in Raleigh—there, community members can drop off items like gently used furniture, housewares, clothing, books and jewelry; and families in need receive vouchers to shop free of charge.

The Salvation Army, a Christian ministry with humble beginnings in London 154 years ago, is one of the most prolific charitable organizations in the world, with roots in more than 130 countries. They provide aid in emergencies, work toward social justice, and support those struggling to meet basic human needs. But Raleigh’s chapter is among the best, says Shelter Director Stephen Gruver, who previously worked at shelters in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago. “We are fortunate to have partners like Wake Smiles and The Raleigh Rotary Club, who operate a full-service dental clinic literally inside our Center of Hope, providing much-needed services,” says Filter. The Salvation Army of Wake County is able to serve an exceptional number of people in such a variety of ways, thanks to the individuals and local organizations that answer the call of the bells.

Ringing the bell truly is the most humbling and uplifting thing I do all year; in fact, it is the perfect antidote to the commercialism that makes it so hard to get into the Christmas spirit,” says John Connell, who has been ringing the bell for over 20 years. His post has rotated through the years, from downtown on Fayetteville Street and now to the Walmart on New Hope Church Road. “We wear the official Salvation Army apron—and you know it’s hard for a UNC grad to wear red—and ring that bell, all the while extending holiday greetings to shoppers and thanking the many generous souls who stop to put their dollars and spare change into the bucket.” Proceeds from the red kettles help fund programs year-round, but Christmas is The Salvation Army’s busiest season: Over 8,000 children will participate in the Christmas Cheer Program, receiving new clothing, toys and stockings. The Angel Tree program allows community members to “adopt” children in need by buying them clothes and toys. And thousands of stockings are picked up at the Center of Hope facility, filled with goodies by volunteers, and returned for distribution.

The Salvation Army, with its many programs and supporters, offers relief for so many members of the community. Relief from hunger, homelessness and cold. A second chance. And for Wake County’s most vulnerable children, it means more than a bike or a new LEGO set for Christmas—it means celebrating the season with joy.