Magazine Features

For the love of Christmas

vol·un·teer   \vä–len–tir\   noun

A person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.

Arline Litchfield has the perfect pitch when she’s recruiting Christmas volunteers for the Bath–Brunswick, Maine, Corps.

“I tell everyone, ‘There’s no better gift you can give to Jesus for His birthday than to volunteer.’ Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and that’s my gift to Him as a present every year,” Litchfield says. “That’s the way my husband and I thought of it. That was the reason we volunteered.”

Litchfield and her husband, Robert, started volunteering at the corps in 1996. They were looking for a good charity to help when they heard a radio ad from The Salvation Army pleading for help with kettles at Christmas.

“He said, ‘That’s a Christian organization. I want to do it.’ It was his choice. We liked the work they did,” Litchfield recalls.

Her husband died in 2009, but Litchfield, now 83, kept going.

“I do it every year in my husband’s honor,” she said. “I do it out of the kindness of my heart.”

Relieving holiday stress

Lieutenant Kirsten Childs, the corps officer in Bath–Brunswick, said Litchfield comes in every day during the Christmas season to sort toys and clothes for the Christmas Castle distribution. Several of her children and grandchildren help out.

“Her care for the community is evident through her years of service and the smiles and joy she brings to those who are blessed to work around her and work alongside her,” Childs said.

“Every corps needs an ‘Arline.’ We are grateful to God for allowing her in our lives.”

The Christmas Castle in Bath–Brunswick is set up like a holiday playland. The recipients walk through and can pick out gifts, stocking stuffers, clothes, stuffed toys, books, crayons, and more.

“It gives people a choice,” Litchfield said. “Most of them are appreciative. They come in so stressed out because they’re really going through a rough time and they know they possibly won’t have any presents under that tree for their children. They go out and they get that gift and can pick out what they want.

Multi–generational help

“A lot of times we get hugs and you can see the relief on their faces. They go out of here like, ‘I have hope now.’ They have a renewed hope that they can get through this. Christmas is a difficult time for a lot of people, emotionally and financially.”

Her children, grandchildren, and a great–grandchild also help out.

“They love it because they’re helping other children,” Litchfield said.

Childs said her corps has a small staff and depends on volunteers at Christmas.

“We have a steady group of volunteers who have been coming back to this corps, year after year, to help,” she said.

The challenge for the corps at Christmas is finding people to help with kettles. Several service groups and community organizations send volunteers, but finding other people is difficult.

“Working for $10 an hour is tough,” Childs said.

Many would–be volunteers find that if they do work, they get their government assistance cut. Many choose not to work.

Even officers need a break

Captain Helen Johnson, the former corps officer in Clearfield, Pa., who is now in Lynn, Mass., said most corps do not have trouble finding volunteers for large events and holidays. Community volunteers are plentiful for Thanksgiving dinners, special children’s events, and holiday distribution, but officers are always excited to find those few volunteers who keep coming year round.

This past Christmas, the Clearfield Corps had use of a building to sort, pack, and distribute toys and food. On the Thursday before Christmas, 250 families received a food box and some type of frozen meat, while 425 children were given a large bag of toys and clothes.

About 15 volunteers were on site to help give out everything. On the following day, Johnson sat in the toy location, reflecting on all that had transpired. She was grateful for the volunteers who were there the previous day, but found herself wondering who would clean up the place, break down the boxes, take them to the dumpster at the corps, and bring all the tables back.

A prayer answered

Johnson was ill, her own Christmas shopping needed to be done, and she only had one day to get the toy location cleaned out. Looking around, she became somewhat emotional as she prayed. Just then, a man named Rob and his son, Rob Jr., walked in.

“I thought you would be tired after helping with distribution yesterday,” Johnson told them. “I am surprised to see you here.”

The Clearfield, Pa., Corps distributes, on average, 250 food boxes to families in need and 425 bags of toys and clothes to children at Christmas.

“Well,” Rob said, “we have to finish the race, as the Word tells us. We are not done here until everything is cleaned up. So let’s go.”

He loaded the boxes and tables in his pick–up truck. He made three trips from the toy location to the corps until it was cleaned by 1 p.m.

“This was not the first time Rob had come through when we needed him,” Johnson said. “He has proven to be one of the most valuable and committed volunteers we have.”

Rob began volunteering shortly after his wife started attending a women’s group at the corps. While she met with the women, Rob noticed the corps needed help with the food pantry. He jumped right in and helped load the shelves.

“He dangerously volunteered himself to come and help with anything else we needed at other times,” Johnson said.

Taking him up on his offer, the corps arranged for Rob to come once a week to help unload the Food Bank truck. He now comes faithfully and brings family whenever they can join him.

It wasn’t long before Rob noticed the corps struggled to arrange pick–ups and drop–offs for its after–school program. He filled out the necessary paperwork and became a regular driver.

That led Rob to eventually lead the Adventure Corps.

“Although the boys in the program can be very active, and at times disrespectful, they love his gentle leadership and direction,” Johnson said. “It is wonderful for them to have a loving male role model. He plans their projects and teaches them with patience and wisdom.”

Rob has also become the lead volunteer for the Emergency Disaster Service (EDS) program.

“He can be ready anytime to bring the canteen on location to a fire or other incident,” Johnson said. “He can be trusted to serve with love and compassion.

It takes a village …

“I am struck by his willingness and commitment. He volunteers out of love for the Lord. He witnesses to other volunteers and to people in need both through his example and his testimony. He always goes the extra mile. He literally drives around to area churches and restaurants that have agreed to freeze donated turkeys and hams. Early on distribution day, he drives all over to pick them up in his truck.”

Billie Parker, another volunteer with a truck, came from the community. Before he died recently, he owned Bill’s Service and Towing of Stamford, Conn. For the past four years, Parker brought one of his giant tow trucks to help with the annual toy pickups for the Stamford Corps.

“Billie dedicated his entire day to the Stamford Salvation Army out of a very busy schedule” said Melissa Shapiro, a development associate at the corps. “He helped us pick up over 3,000 toys from over 15 local companies and was excited to do so.”

Parker owned and operated one of the largest tow companies in the area. Shapiro said Parker would come every year with one of his “prettiest” flatbeds to pick up toys throughout the tight–knit Stamford community.

“We were blessed to have Billie,” Shapiro said. “Without him, it would have been extremely difficult to pick up so many toys. We are a small office and depend on volunteers like him to help. He arrived happy and prepared to do whatever was needed to make Christmas for Stamford children magical.”

When asked about his volunteerism, Parker seemed to exemplify the community spirit in Stamford.

“We just like helping out the community and doing things for the kids,” he said. “We do a lot of charity stuff. We enjoy doing it. I like donating my time.

“It’s satisfying to know that kids are getting presents who couldn’t afford them.”

Shapiro, who grew up in Stamford and has a lot of contacts, said she’s fortunate to find 20–25 dedicated volunteers like Parker each year.

Joyous, giving season

“I find a lot of people are passionate about Christmas,” she said. “They know the Army is very involved in Christmas and they want to help out any way they can.”

Rosemarie Dykeman, director of social services at the Nashua, N.H., Corps, agreed and said finding Christmas volunteers is “easy as pie.”

“People love volunteering at Christmas,” she said. “It’s the other times of the year that are more difficult.”

Dykeman said businesses, churches, and community groups all help out and are happy to do so.

“People just love the Christmas season, sorting toys, and packing the toy bags,” she said. “We have the Christmas music playing and people just really get into it. Many of them are looking for a way to give back during that season. Many times they call us and request to volunteer. People love Christmas.”

Dedicated to the cause

One of Dykeman’s more exemplary volunteers is Linda Leedburg, who has helped out with the Christmas program at the corps since 2003.

Leedburg normally volunteers three mornings a week to support the programs of the Social Services Department. But during the Christmas season, she shows up five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later.

“Linda comes in with a smile everyday and truly gets excited to serve the greater Nashua community with food, clothing, and household items,” Dykeman said. “She not only helps with the Christmas registration, set up, and distribution program, but she has a few of her adult children support the Christmas effort as well.”

Leedburg said her motivation is simple.

“I do it because I love Christmas and I just love the excitement of it all,” she said. “I love filling the bags with toys for the children. It’s just the nicest time of the year. Everybody is happy with all the bright lights and everything. It’s a great time of year.”

by Robert Mitchell

—Captain Helen Johnson, corps officer in Lynn, Mass., contributed to this story.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Billie Parker, the former owner of Bill’s Service and Towing of Stamford, Conn., and his volunteerism for The Salvation Army. He passed away during the production of this article.