Taking Steps for Service
Early in August 2020, Major Brett DeMichael, commanding officer of the Salvation Army’s Montclair, N.J., Citadel Corps, walked through that affluent community and its neighboring towns. His purpose was to draw attention to the problem of poverty in Montclair, a fact that surprises many residents. Though the corps resides in one of the wealthiest townships in New Jersey, corps staff members still serve lunch at full capacity to needy and homeless people every day.
“I wanted to do a stunt; take an action that would raise awareness of this problem,” says Major DeMichael. “I have colleagues who stood at a kettle for 24 hours or who took a 200–mile bike ride for the Army. Doing something like that sounded fun.”
In the spring when the COVID–19 stay–at–home orders lifted in New Jersey, DeMichael began training for his walk through the community. Every few days, he would practice walking to build stamina. He developed a walkable route around Montclair and Glen Ridge. “Sidewalks around here can be bad sometimes,” says DeMichael.
On a warm 8th of August, DeMichael walked with a neck gaiter for protection from the pandemic and a playlist of recorded music consisting of Salvation Army brass, Christian music, and classic 70s rock. He would begin and end his walk at the Montclair Citadel.
“I started out feeling really good, keeping my pace, and not flying too hard right out of the gate,” says DeMichael. He admits that he’s sometimes in “Disneyworld mode,” quickly rushing from one place to the other. “I had to tone down for this,” he says.
The longest race that DeMichael had ever run was a 5k, a little over 3 miles. But to raise awareness of the poverty problem is his community, he would need to walk much farther.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Ron Waiksnoris, a former New York Staff Band conductor and a member of the Montclair Citadel, had spread the word about DeMichael’s walk on social media. Montclair Local, the town’s newspaper, reached out to DeMichael for an interview and a reporter caught up with him as he was walking. She followed him for half a mile.
“She didn’t want to stop me, so we walked together,” says DeMichael. “It felt like an oxymoron to talk to her about poverty while walking past all these beautiful houses. But I wanted the reporter to know that poverty is there even though it can be hidden. The Salvation Army never stops helping those who need it, even during a pandemic.”
“I walked along some very rich homes and neighborhoods, but I also knew that just a little beyond those homes was Eagle Rock Park, a famous New Jersey walking location,” says DeMichael. “Many of the homeless who come to the Montclair Citadel for help stay in that park. I know the route they walk to come to us.”
DeMichael walked 26 miles in seven hours. His family provided water and sports drinks at his halfway stop, their living quarters. They were also at the Montclair Citadel to greet him when he was finished.
Find Your Support
DeMichael’s walk was able to bring in extra donations and raise awareness of what the Army does in Montclair. He encourages people who feel they can do an act in the Army’s name as he did, to go for it.
“I was a runner until it got hard on my knees, and then I started walking for exercise. This walk was not something I did begrudgingly,” says DeMichael. “If I had attempted to stand at a kettle for 24 hours straight, I would have probably quit before I finished and felt awful. You need to find something in your wheelhouse, something that interests you.”
“Also, let people know what you are doing, so you can find support in them,” says DeMichael. “I don’t underestimate the fact that my mom and dad were praying for me as I did my walk. People I knew and cared about wanted me to be successful and stay healthy. Knowing that was impactful.”
Major DeMichael also says that finding a real purpose for what you do is important. For him, it was promoting the work of the Montclair Citadel, and the people it serves.
“Feeding the homeless and hungry is a big part of what we do, and my walk was to raise awareness and the funds to continue that. It’s not about the walk, but rather the purpose of it,” says DeMichael.
“When you know and care about the purpose of your act, it’s hard to quit, even when you’re tired.”
by Hugo Bravo