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Christmas spirit every day

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Shelagh Skipsey, whose given name is the Irish iteration of Sheila, has resided in Lewisville for 5-plus years by way of Surrey County, England.  She offices in a refurbished 93-year-old dark brick house directly across Main Street from the Grand Theater. The neat yard, mature shade trees and red picnic table with a market umbrella invite visitors like grandma’s house – and well it could be, based on the family photo gracing her office wall.

She and her husband Graham have three grown children and seven grandchildren, most of who reside in the Metroplex.

“Our first son-in-law took an international assignment to the U.S. with his employer back home. Of course his wife–our daughter–and their children came along. During a visit with her transplanted sister, our other daughter met her American husband,” and the rest, as they say, is family history.

Mom and Dad Skipsey plan to return to Britain upon retirement from the Salvation Army where Mrs. Skipsey is officer and director of the Lewisville Service Center which consists of an honest-to-goodness grandma’s house and a newer, blonde brick building in the rear that looks like a small country church minus the steeple.

The complex surrounded by three streets, sits on the end of a city block in Old Town Lewisville, a genteel neighborhood floating in a sea of workday tranquility.

Solitary men appear in the morning on foot and bicycles.  A few sit on the center’s small porch to sip a cup of coffee and down a pastry before they disappear.

“Eighty percent of homeless individuals have mental health issues,” she said.

Horatio Alger success stories are difficult for this population, but the Army refers such people to other helping agencies, and about a fifth of them return to normal life.

“We are all children of God,” she said, “and nobody deserves to starve or suffer exposure.”

The bible urges Christian people to do what they can to alleviate such problems, and to that end, out of community donations the center provides the light breakfast, free hot lunch daily and transportation as possible to overnight shelters in the Metroplex.

“We know some of these people live in cars or out of sight in tents in the woods.” Homeless people tend to wander the familiar turf where they grew up, so most are longtime local citizens whose situations have deteriorated in unthinkable ways.

Mid-morning, women of modest means come by with children to pick up a few sacks of groceries, and an older gent visits the administrative office, nods at a baker’s cart of day-old goods, and murmurs in Spanish.
The white-haired receptionist smiles. “Take what you need.” He takes two loaves of bread, says thank you, and walks out.

Lively south Denton County residents, a mix of ages, park in the small lot around the center and then man their social battle stations for a shift of volunteer work. Smiles and good cheer fill the place.

Some help cook the noon luncheon or prepare the day’s brown bag take-away meals in the shiny commercial kitchen. Others get the small cafeteria ready and still others do office work, sort donations, bag groceries and help administer an array of social services.

The little center employs a full-time director and two part-time assistants who coordinate 200 volunteers.

“We keep what we will need from all incoming donations then send the rest off to Dallas headquarters for distribution elsewhere.”

Each center is unique like its neighborhood needs. A daily truck from Dallas headquarters makes deliveries and pickups which keeps the church’s centers tidy inside and out.

There are no random donation bins in Lewisville. “We abide by municipal regulations in every town we call home,” she said.

Yes, the Salvation Army is actually a religious congregation. “We are a denomination of the Christian Church,” Mrs. Skipsey said.

Service Centers raise their own operating funds. The Lewisville Salvation Army operates a food pantry and a lunch cafeteria; helps transport people to doctors, job interviews or shelters; distributes gently-used clothing; provides single and family hygiene packs, diapers; maintains shower facilities and clean clothes for the homeless; receives and disperses Christmas gifts for children; gathers and gives away school supplies; provides court-ordered community service opportunities; has an employment search office, and refers families and individuals in economic and emotional crises to other agencies that provide longer-term help.

At Christmas, the Army provides volunteer bell ringers with the iconic Red Kettles at familiar retail stores and sets up Angel Trees in corporate settings. The international church has a total of 70 possible charitable programs.

“Currently we provide social services in 156 nations worldwide. Needs in Lewisville can differ substantially from needs somewhere in India.”

Shelagh’s job is program and project management, and needs assessment. She is a lifelong church member and, since 1982, has directed four service centers.  Her husband is a director of the Salvation Army Southern Territory office in Dallas.

Since its early times, the Salvation Army has organized and operated in a military fashion. Its clergy are called officers, non-clergy are soldiers and adherents, and participants in various activities may be members and/or community volunteers with other beliefs.

“In the old days, officers wore then-current military style clothing instead of traditional clerical garb. We’ve modernized with the times.”
She pointed to her black knit polo shirt with the famous little red shield patch. She wears matching black pants and a red golf style cardigan. The Salvation Army trains and ordains both men and women for its ministry.

The church was founded in 1852 by English evangelist William Booth who felt called to preach to indigent Victorians rejected, because of undesirable personal histories, by conventional Christian congregations.

In the absence of physical church buildings, he named the ministry the Christian Mission, and took his testimony of Jesus to street corners, tents and public meeting places. Twenty years later, the Mission directed some 42 evangelists and 1,000 volunteers. By the early 1880s organized membership swelled to a quarter of a million.

Early on, many belittled the convert workers and nicknamed them the Hallelujah Army. Booth appropriated the term and renamed the mission the Salvation Army.  Today church members call themselves Salvationists, and meet in sanctuaries called Corps buildings. The organization has operated in Texas for 125 years.

Booth developed a highly successful attack plan against what 19th century people called pauperism and vice. The program, which he believed exemplified the simplest idea of New Testament theology – be nice and share – was forward thinking in his time, and inadvertently set the pattern for modern social welfare.

Long before his death Booth, and his equally influential son, William Bramwell Booth, became respected public figures. Father and son envisioned housing projects, food depots, shelters and rehab programs, counseling services, prison ministries and banks for the poor.
Booth the younger was responsible for the first successful parliamentary legislation that protected at-risk British girls from sexual trafficking.

The Salvation Army opened a missionary hospital in 1902, led USO formation in World War II, still helps military veterans and performs disaster relief work.

The Booths contended that community social problems could be resolved with private sector resources. The works of Christian faith were open to all willing hands rich and poor. There was space for every level of ability, income and interest. That tradition contin
ues in the 21st century.

The private sector idea found no purchase in rising Marxist states whose leaders determined to appropriate private property and solve social problems under government direction. For example, the Soviets banned the Army’s operations in eastern Europe for 65 years during which time collectivized agriculture in Russia alone suffered 60 back-to-back crop failures. In time Communism lost its grip, and in 1991 the Salvation Army opened centers in the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The moral of the story is stick with your beliefs and dreams through thick and thin.

The Lewisville Service Center helps 600 local families have Christmas dinner and presents under the tree for children and seniors living with them.

In 2014, the center served close to 31,000 warm meals, and distributed almost 5,500 brown bag “snack” meals to area homeless people.

The resources for this largesse did not materialize out of thin air or tax monies or the church operations budget, but from private generosity of all faiths – donations of local money and gifts-in-kind.

Salvation Army pantries need canned meats, soups, sauces, dry noodles, beans, rice, boxed and canned meals, veggies and fruits, peanut butter and jelly. A single Army box of food guarantees a family three hunger-free days. Used clothes in good condition keep low income people warm.

“We need new underwear and socks in all sizes,” and of course money donations can be made by check or online.

“If you wish to direct money to a specific program, we can do it,” she said. “Look outside yourself and find the compassion to help those in need around you.”

Want to think big? It’s possible! An anonymous local person who was not a Salvationist, donated the grandma house behind the Service Center then funded its restoration.  The inside is modern and cheerful. The workmanship was no half-way measure.

Visit the center during regular business hours at 206 West Main Street, Lewisville, or in the Salvation Army online subdirectory at www.salvationarmytexas.org. For a facilities tour, contact Joyce_Curlin@uss.salvationarmy.org, and don’t forget to help fill your nearest Red Kettle as you Christmas shop. There is a public Angel Tree at Golden Triangle Mall in Denton.

Contact Noelle M. Hood at noellemhood@gmail.com

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