From Christmas Tree to Kroc Center

by Hugo Bravo

Sandra Rodriguez didn’t know what to expect the first time she accompanied her mother to The Salvation Army in Caguas, Puerto Rico, 26 years ago.

“My mother had visited my sister, a Salvationist in Pennsylvania, and together they had attended The Salvation Army in Allentown. Upon returning to Puerto Rico, she wanted to find The Salvation Army here as well,” says Sandra. “We found the number of the Caguas corps and left a message for the officer. He called us back and invited my mother to church.”

Sandra thought that would be the end of it for herself; she had done the favor her mother requested. But when she insisted that Sandra come with her to a Thanksgiving Home League celebration, Sandra agreed to go. She didn’t want her mother to be the only one there without a family member.

“I’m a shy person, but when we arrived there, I saw how close the ministry was, and how they bonded in Christ,” says Sandra.

One of the day’s activities was to pick two people to be decorated like a Christmas tree; Sandra was chosen as the first tree. She was covered in decorations, ornaments, and Christmas lights.

“My mother plugged in the lights, and I lit up for everyone to see. I thought to myself, ‘Is this even safe?’” says Sandra, laughing.

Having been a hit at Home League, Sandra was invited to return. Two weeks later, she started coming to the church to help and volunteer any way she could. She soon became a soldier, and when The Salvation Army announced it was building a Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Sandra was the first person hired as an employee.

“I saw the Kroc built from the ground up,” says Sandra, who had work experience developing housing projects in Puerto Rico. “But I also now saw The Salvation Army as not just my church. This building would be a business, and its job was to serve the community in as many new ways as possible.”

As director of program and operations, Sandra oversaw the creation of new and exciting ministries that a Kroc Center can best accommodate, such as sports programs and music lessons. One of these programs was a swimming class; Sandra says that despite Puerto Rico’s being an island, many of its residents don’t know how to swim.

“We called it Club Salvavidas,” says Sandra. “Our motto was ‘Mi salvavidas camina sobre agua.’” Translation: “Club Lifeguard” and “My lifeguard can walk on water.”

Another program taught senior citizens how to use modern electronics like smartphones and tablets. This would be useful for communicating with loved ones during storms and other natural disasters. Ironically, when hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, those same seniors were the Guayama Kroc’s most active volunteers.

“They were the first to arrive every morning to help prepare and serve food to the community,” says Sandra.

With the Guayama Kroc currently closed for repairs, Sandra Rodriguez is now working as operations and property director at Puerto Rico’s divisional headquarters, monitoring the Kroc’s progress and new ideas as it rebuilds. Going from playing a Home League Christmas tree to helping guide the Kroc Center is a journey that she loves to share with others, because no one can sing the praises of The Salvation Army in Puerto Rico like someone who has been part of its history.

“Before it closed, the Guayama Kroc was welcoming 10,000 people a month in one of the poorest parts of Puerto Rico. It was home to beautiful ministries and programs that I feel so blessed to have been a part of. And I love sharing its history, because I remember how the Kroc looked like when it had no programs or even walls. I cannot wait to see it fully back again.”