Passion to Serve Needy People

The clang of forks and knives began to wane as Lt. Colonel Henry Gonzalez, the Salvation Army Austin, Texas, area commander, took the podium. The members and guests at the Kiwanis Club meeting had just finished their lunch, and the room fell silent as the colonel spoke of his vision for helping people in need in Georgetown, a rapidly growing community just north of Austin.

Laura Spradlin listened in awe as he spoke passionately about feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor. The colonel’s heart for the needy stirred in Laura a desire to help those less fortunate in her own community. By the time Gonzalez reached the end of his speech, Laura knew she wanted to work with The Salvation Army.

The Army already had a presence in Georgetown and greater Williamson County through its Red Kettle Cam-paign and a mobile canteen run by volunteers. However, having an official, physical service center in the county would mean that The Salvation Army could do even more to provide help in the area.

Laura cut through the milling crowd to the front of the room and handed Gonzalez her card.

“If The Salvation Army comes to Williamson County,” she said, “I’m interested in working with you.” That was two years ago.

Nine months after the luncheon, Laura received a call and interviewed for a job. Now she is the director of the new Georgetown–Williamson County Service Center, which opened in February 2013. She had no prior experience working for The Salvation Army, yet she knew that everything that had happened in her life had prepared her for this position.

“I knew I wanted this job. I had been praying about it,” Laura says.

Helping spirit

Laura’s journey to The Salvation Army and a life of service started in the 1960s in Friendswood, Texas, a town of fewer than 1,000 people near the coastal city of Galveston. As a child, Laura would find stray critters—some hurt, some just homeless—and put them in the family’s garage, where she could shelter them from the cold and nurse them back to health.

By the time she got to high school, she had become interested in helping people with disabilities. She dated a boy who was a paraplegic and, as a result, met other kids with disabilities.

“Once I started hanging around with people who were disabled, I realized I enjoyed helping and encouraging them,” she says. “That was a very instrumental time in my life.”

After Laura graduated from high school, she joined the U.S. Navy and found new opportunities to help others. As a hospital corpsman, she cared for sailors and their families. She worked in the ER, ICU, pediatrics, physical therapy, and other departments.

“I did almost everything a nurse would do except hand out narcotics,” she says.

Laura also took physical therapy classes on the bases where she was stationed—in Florida, South Carolina, California, and Japan. She loved the military life, with its opportunities for beginning a helping vocation and traveling.

When her tour with the Navy ended in 1993, she began an eight–year career as a licensed physical therapist assistant. She earned a B.A. in applied science in physical therapy from St. Edwards University in Austin in 2003.

New lands, new cultures

Long before joining the Navy, Laura had been bitten by the travel bug. She had vacationed with her family in Spain and France. And in her early teens, her dad’s job transferred him to Tehran, Iran, and the family went along.

Laura attended the Tehran American School in the early 1970s and loved learning about the culture and language. She even learned to adapt to the conservative dress code; she refrained from wearing shorts and short–sleeved shirts.

“We ate their food and shopped in their stores. We did everything they did,” she says.

Though there was no indoor plumbing in some places and she had to get used to herds of sheep walking in the streets, she loved the experience and made new friends. She remembers hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood, shopping for groceries at the street markets, and eating warm barbari bread made in ovens right on the street.

“Traveling to foreign countries opened my eyes to different cultures and people. You have to respect what people are thinking—their backgrounds and cultures. How someone is raised determines their beliefs,” Laura said. “It also caused me to be flexible and adaptable.”

From this experience, Laura learned, “Different isn’t bad. I believe God allowed me to see the world in a larger sense.” Whether in Iran, Spain, France, or Friendswood, Texas, Laura learned that all people have the same need for love, acceptance, and significance. She also learned that every country has people whose most basic needs for food and shelter are left unmet.

She realized that God had allowed her an adventurous life to prepare her for her work with The Salvation Army.

A center is born

In 2011, The Timothy Group, a consulting firm, conducted a study to determine whether The Salvation Army could help address unmet needs in Georgetown.

“The new service center is the first step in The Salvation Army’s long–term commitment to Georgetown and Williamson County,” says Ron Haas, vice president with The Timothy Group. “We identified a gap for the types of services the Army provides in meeting basic human needs. I was very impressed with the collaborative spirit of the other service providers who were eager to work together with The Salvation Army to solve community problems without duplicating services.”

His impressions mattered because, according to Jan Gunter, communications and community relations director of The Salvation Army Austin Metropolitan Area Command, “The way The Salvation Army works is to enter a community and meet basic human needs without duplicating services.” Service centers are located in areas where the Army doesn’t already have a corps (church and community center).

Months before the Georgetown Service Center officially opened, Laura brought her diverse talents to bear on her new position. She knows the area and began contacting other service organizations. Not one to sit still, Laura coordinated a free Christmas luncheon for the entire community; it was a joint effort of the Army and the First United Methodist Church in Georgetown. She and her volunteers also took blankets to a local nursing home.

“The volunteers loved it,” she says. “They got as much out of it as the residents.”

Laura also established a clothes closet and will be opening a food pantry in the small building in Georgetown where the service center shares space.

She is part of the Hunger Task Force in Georgetown. Georgetown has an estimated “food insecurity rate” of 14% as of 2011 (Source: Food insecurity refers to the USDA’s measure of lack of access to enough food to maintain a healthy, active family.

Laura’s goals for this year are to:

  • Increase the number of volunteers from 40 to 200
  • Collaborate with other local agencies to meet the needs of the community
  • Develop a database of resources so that she can refer clients to the appropriate agencies and organizations
  • Expand the Community Cares nursing home visitation program

Eventually, Laura would like to see the Georgetown Service Center become a corps community center so that in addition to providing emergency financial aid, food, and clothing assistance, The Salvation Army would also be able to offer worship, youth education and music camps, and programs to meet broader social issues.

“My biggest goal is to let God work in this and go where He wants us to go,” Laura says.

“I am one person with one life, living to serve others,” she says. This “one person” knows that whether she was helping a woman with paraplegia get to her lunch table, giving a soldier a penicillin shot, or adapting to the culture in Iran, God’s hand was in it all, preparing her for continued service with The Salvation Army.

by Alicea Jones


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