in Canton, Ohio
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
“Somebody has to do something.”
The staff at the Canton, Ohio, Citadel Corps grew weary of hearing that phrase each time a student committed suicide in Stark County. During the 2017–18 school year, 12 students took their lives in separate incidents.
One of the tragedies hit close to home for Heather Morris, the administrative assistant at the Canton Corps. In February 2018, a middle schooler brought a gun to class and killed himself. The incident happened at the same school where Morris’ two children attend.
Majors Thomas and Debbra Grace, the corps officers, called a staff meeting to brainstorm ideas on what could be done about the epidemic. Initially, the corps decided to dedicate 30 percent of its $2.5 million annual budget to youth programming and launched #everychildmatters, a hashtag movement.
“It motivated all of us,” Grace recalls. “It came out of the reality that there have been continual school shootings. To a person, we decided we’re going to do something and we’re going to put our energy behind it, 100 percent. It all starts with committed people.”
Their first challenge was to reopen the community center. “It had been closed for years,” Grace said. “When I put the budget together, that figure ended up being 35 percent of our operating budget going to youth programming.”
They named the center “The SAL,” which stands for Safety, Availability, and Love. “Those are the things that we see as foundational to the maturation of children,” Grace said. “We make ourselves available to kids. We need to hear what they’re saying and act on what they say. Across the board, this is a loving and compassionate team here.”
One of those team members is Chris Brown, a former Pathway of Hope case manager. As the community center director, he exemplifies the “Safety, Availability, and Love” mission.
“That’s something we want people to feel when they come here,” Brown said. “We went from having a gym that was closed, to having a gym that is full several times a week. It means a lot to these kids because there’s not a lot of opportunities here.”
Brown said two Canton–area high schools recently consolidated. That cut the number of basketball players who can make the school team.
“A lot of kids got left out and we’re providing some opportunities for those kids,” he said. “Kids need a place to play.”
Basketball leagues now dominate the gym, including a junior NBA team and a diversion program known as “Taking the Crown.” The corps also built a partnership with the Canton Charge, the G–League affiliate of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The team’s players have held clinics with local kids. The corps mascot, Salvation SAL, has appeared at Charge games.
The mentorship program is known as “Points of Reference.” The teens involved produce lemonade called “Dare to Dream” and Grace expects it to be on local supermarket shelves in the future. While that may seem a longshot, Grace says a locally produced Salvation Army donut made it on shelves last year.
“We’re really at the beginning of a long road of fun and creative programming,” Grace said.
The 35 percent budget figure for youth programming goes largely to staffing and equipment for programs, Grace said.
“We want those dollars to be used creatively,” he said. “Traditional Army programming is the foundation of everything we do, but the fact is, the community around us is vastly different than it was even 10 years ago. Rather than just roll the ball out and say, ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ we’re going to do more.
“We want this place to be as seamless as possible. While we have multiple departments here and our delivery of services is different, depending on what the department is, we all need to reach for the same thing, and what we need to reach for is positive change in the lives of the people the Lord brings to our door.”
Everyone on mission
Grace has eight grandchildren, but he and his wife are empty nesters.
“I don’t have kids running around my house, but these folks do,” Grace said of his staff. “Their children are the ones facing the very issues that we want to cry out against. Every person in this building has brought something to the table. Where did it come from? It came from their life perspectives. They’re out there leading the charge more than I am.”
His philosophy when someone raises an idea is, “It’s a ‘yes’ until it’s a ‘no.’”
“It may seem strange to somebody else, but it may be just what the doctor ordered for our young people,” Grace said. “There has yet to be a ‘no’ because it’s coming from the hearts of kids. We’re not going to tell kids what they need. We’re going to let kids tell us what they need. We want to hear them, but not just hear them; we want to act on what they tell us.
“Committing 35 percent of our operating budget to youth is an incredible investment in the future and has the potential to change culture and the conditions of culture in this community and that’s why we did it.”
It’s clear the #everychildmatters hashtag and spirit permeates everything the corps does.
“That has sparked things,” Brown said. “We’ve seen a great increase in our presence in the schools and in the community.”
Grace said other churches are also taking action, but he wanted the corps to be different. So, Grace ordered a Dalmatian costume on Amazon.com and “Salvation SAL” was born. The corps mascot goes to schools and to other community events, including the NFL’s Hall of Fame Parade.
“When Salvation SAL goes anywhere, he is loved by the kids,” Grace said. “He also draws the parents. We’ve gone into some of this community’s most difficult neighborhoods (see sidebar). As a result of our mobilizing, we’ve seen new people in the corps and in a lot of our programs.”
Salvation Army basics
Salvation SAL and other staffers go into two rough elementary schools to share their love, and with bracelets and trading cards in hand. Brown sometimes wears the Dalmatian costume.
“You can tell there’s a need,” Brown said. “If a kid will come up and hug a stranger, it shows that, not only do they feel safe, but there’s obviously a need there.”
The mascot sits at lunch tables and helps the kids open their juice boxes. Sometimes he’s there to just talk or give them a high–five.
“There’s nothing profound about that,” Grace says. “I tend to believe that’s what the Founder and his team did to birth the Army. We didn’t even have chapels back then. We went into the community. We made ourselves available.
“You have to show people that they matter, and you need to believe that to work here. People matter and if they don’t, we should just close the doors. I think William Booth, if he were here, would say ‘Amen’ to that. If we look at who William Booth targeted in his ministry, it was people who others thought didn’t matter.”
The ideas come from the youngest to the oldest. Ozell Williams, who works with seniors at the corps, suggested holding a corps community night, which drew several new people.
“That was Ozell’s idea and it came out of his heart,” Grace said. “That’s what goes on here. I don’t have all the ideas, but we have a whole lot of people who do. It’s the whole team. It’s everyone here.”
Seniors help kids
Williams and his band of seniors hooked up with Tara Brown, the wife of Chris Brown and the social services director at the corps. They’re working on an intergenerational project to provide “weekender bags” for the poor children in Canton. Nearly 100 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch.
Corps members pack 300 bags a week for distribution at two elementary schools. The bags include two breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and drinks, as well as candy and produce.
“The seniors put all their love into the bags and we pack them up and take them to the schools every Friday,” Tara Brown said.
Brown said she also enjoys interacting with the children. She recalls talking to one young girl who said she was sad because her 4th–grade classmate had committed suicide.
“It opened my heart that it’s not just the social services clients I serve, but it’s bigger than that,” Tara Brown said. “Any step I can take to get into the school or into the community to touch them on a one–on–one basis, I will do over and over again.
“We have lots of children who come from broken homes and it’s an unfortunate, but common scenario.”
Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who leads a Hispanic service at the church, is active with a food pantry and is teaching kids soccer. In the fall, the corps provides backpacks for school and tries to help the Spanish–speaking community feel safe.
“For us, every child matters because he or she is the next generation, be they English or Spanish speaking,” he said. “We want them to know the peace and love of Jesus Christ. Many come from violent areas and see sex, drugs, and violence on television. We form a relationship with them. We plant our values in them.”
Darlene Williams, the youth ministries assistant at the corps, said the children who come on Sunday mornings can attend Orange Sunday School and a music & arts program after service. The corps also offers a Friday night youth program for grades 6–8.
“It’s a time when they can be with someone with whom they feel safe to talk to. They also get a little bit of spiritual guidance while having some fun,” she said.
The name of Jesus
Williams said Canton is a city plagued by poverty. Single parents there work long hours. That cuts into family time and increases the kids’ indulgence in social media. To combat these problems, Williams and Brown are involved in the mentoring program.
“I feel the community is in need of a lot of mentoring,” she said.
A former preschool educator, Williams is happy that she can now speak freely about her faith when counseling young people.
“I would see a lot of need, but I couldn’t really speak about Jesus and what He could do in their lives,” she said of her former job. “I could have been fired for doing that. What motivates me now is, I don’t have to teach a curriculum of just basic ABCs. I can teach kids about Jesus and how He’s there during troubles and during happiness.
“A lot of these kids don’t go to church. A lot of their parents don’t go either. Having a kid just curious about church, that’s the first step. They’re open to it. That’s what gets me up every day. I know it’s worth it. They want to know ‘Is there anyone else out here who loves me?’ I can tell them, ‘Yes, Jesus does.’”
Morris, who said everyone at the corps supported her after the shooting at her children’s school, is happy to be part of the solution.
“It doesn’t matter to me that it involved my children,” she said. “It was happening, and we needed to do something, and we did, and I’m so proud. Everyone knew we needed to do something before that day. But once this happened, everyone agreed we needed to stop talking about it and do something.
“How can you walk down the halls of a school and tell who will be the next kid to attempt suicide? You can’t do anything about who might bring a gun to school, but we can do this; we opened up a place that’s safe and comfortable and loving and appropriate for children. We offer love, patience, kindness, activities, and an outlet.”
by Robert Mitchell
photography by Jason Miller
Major Thomas Grace said The Salvation Army’s “The Whole World Mobilizing” campaign “radically changed” the Canton, Ohio (Citadel) Corps.
“When then–General André Cox said he wanted the Army to be mobilized, we took that very seriously,” Grace said. “We traveled to a different community once a month.”
Heather Morris, the administrative assistant at the corps, said, “Mobilizing changed our whole corps and our place in the community.”
The corps sponsored or co–sponsored several community events, including a “Summerbration” that involved a partnership with radio station WHBC in Canton.
Grace, an admitted introvert, likes to joke that he sits in the proverbial leather chair, but he joined the outreach effort and found himself blessed. The corps distributed food and engaged its struggling neighbors.
“If you really want to do ministry, you need to know that people are dying from heroin overdoses in their car while their kids are sitting there when that’s happening,” Grace said. “You should know that 53 percent of the kids in our community live in poverty. That should break our hearts—and it does.
“If Salvation Army officers are going to have a perspective on the field that they’re supposed to minister to, then they better get up from their leather chairs. They better get out into their communities, lead the charge, and mobilize.”