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Gifts Under the Tree

Amanda Strandburg knows what it’s like to see Christmas approaching, but have nothing under the tree. You might say “The Ghost of Christmas Past” visited her every holiday season.

Today, as the 4th runner–up in the Mrs. Pennsylvania International Pageant earlier this year, Strandburg is determined to redefine her present and future.

Amanda and her two siblings were raised in Clearfield, Pa., by a struggling single mother.

“There were a couple of Christmases when we didn’t have any gifts,” Amanda said. “My mother received food baskets from The Salvation Army. I remember one year our heat was turned off and she got heating assistance from The Salvation Army. I am forever grateful.”

When Amanda was 8, and as the days dwindled down to Dec. 25, she wondered if there would be a Christmas at all.

“It was a few days before Christmas and there was nothing. Then, we got two gifts each from The Salvation Army.

“To this day, I can remember what I got,” says Strandburg, now 32. “It was a bracelet–making kit and a sand art kit.”


She’s a giver

Strandburg now lives in State College, Pa., and has given back to The Salvation Army over the years in both Clearfield and Punxsutawney, Pa.

In Clearfield, she has spoken at the annual Kettle Kickoff event and has helped with the toy program. When COVID–19 hit, she and her husband, David, helped serve breakfast and lunch to schoolchildren for two months until she was called back to her job with the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The Clearfield Salvation Army is like my new adopted family,” Strandburg says. “We’re really close. They’re so great and this is truly what family and community are about.”

In Punxsutawney, she met with students in the after–school program at the corps and created a community service award through the Mrs. Pennsylvania International Pageant.

In fact, she got involved in the pageant in April 2019 to bring attention to The Salvation Army through her platform of community empowerment. She doesn’t believe people are defined by their past and can overcome it through being in community.


First–time contestant

With COVID–19 and social unrest tearing the country apart, Strandburg said her message is a timely one.

“Now, more than ever, we need community empowerment,” she says. “We need to rely on our neighbors. We need to help each other.”

Amanda (right) receives her 4th runner–up plaque at the Mrs. Pennsylvania International Pageant.

She took the local title of Mrs. Clearfield International and finished as the 4th runner–up in the state pageant.

“I’m still excited because I had never done a pageant before,” Strandburg said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to get my message out there, and like anyone, I do like to occasionally dress up.

“I did the pageant to simply convey my message and talk about the importance of helping others and serving my community through Christ. It’s amazing how a platform elevates my message. I have more of an audience. People are truly listening. I’m able to get out there and talk about my story and the impact The Salvation Army has had on me.”

The Mrs. Pennsylvania International Pageant is based more on a contestant’s interview and platform than on physical beauty, Strandburg said.

“To me, that really meant something,” she said. “It was my way of having a larger audience to share my message that we need to help other people and that their circumstances may not be their fault.

“The reason I entered the contest was truly to talk about my experience as a child. I also wanted to reduce the stigma associated with people who receive help.”

“Today, I think there’s a stigma that says if you’re on any kind of social services, it’s like, ‘What did you do to put yourself in that position?’ Because that’s not always the case, we need to look at it from a different point of view. We still need to help and love our neighbor because when we uplift people, we’re lifting our community.”

—Amanda Strandburg

Overcoming the odds

Amanda’s parents divorced when she was a baby and she had no relationship with her father. Her mother, Sherry, worked three jobs to provide for her children. She received little support from family members, many of whom were in and out of jail or struggling with alcohol.

“I give Christ the credit that I never went down those paths,” Strandburg said. “In His calling, I was able to rise above that. It’s really hard sometimes to rise because society can be brutal. That’s extremely heartbreaking to me when it happens.

“Today, I think there’s a stigma that says if you’re on any kind of social services, it’s like, ‘What did you do to put yourself in that position?’ Because that’s not always the case, we need to look at it from a different point of view. We still need to help and love our neighbor because when we uplift people, we’re lifting our community.”

Looking back, Strandburg said she realizes her mother did all she could and “it wasn’t her fault” that the family struggled financially.

“She tried. The Salvation Army lent that extra hand. They said, ‘We’re here for you, we’re going to be your family, we’re going to be your community.’ That’s essentially what The Salvation Army was to me. They were like my extended family. Without them, I wouldn’t have had a Christmas.


Burying the past

“Some people are too proud to receive help, so they and their children continue to struggle. People shouldn’t be too proud. I think it’s a reawakening moment, like a rebirth, when you ask for help and people help you. That’s something to truly be cherished.”

While Amanda has struggled with her family’s past, she was determined that it would not define her.

“I said, ‘That doesn’t deter me from my goals and my dreams. I’m not going to let my family’s past pull me back or hinder me in any way.’

“Not having the money to fit in or have the most expensive clothes was really hard on me as a child. I really had to rely on my faith to push past all of that. I want everyone to know, and especially children, that their background does not make them who they are. They can rise above it. My message is, ‘Don’t forget where you came from, but you can certainly become something better.’”

Amanda did overcome her past by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in business. Nine years ago while earning her associate’s in business, she saw a flier for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard (ANG) and joined.


Big plans ahead

Strandburg is just as comfortable in combat boots as she is in high heels. She recently became a warrant officer in the ANG.

“It’s like two different ends of a spectrum,” Strandburg says with a laugh. “I joined the National Guard as another way to give back to my community. I really do enjoy helping people. I always feel like I’m indebted to give back.”

In February, she started a benefit ball for a homeless shelter in DuBois, Pa.,  and to help ANG members in financial need.

As for the future, she plans to compete in the Mrs. Pennsylvania International Pageant in April 2021.

As a certified personal trainer, she and her husband also hope to open a health center and small café someday. They have a blended family that includes her 12–year–old son, Beau.

Strandburg, who regularly attends a Methodist church with her family, gives Christ all the glory in leading her down a better path in life.

“If I didn’t have Christ in my life to show me the way and to live by His values, I just honestly don’t think I would be where I am today,” she said.


Christ is life

“Christ is my hope. When we pray, I feel like my prayers are answered and that gives me a sense of being home.”

A spiritual longing was in Amanda from an early age. Her family lived about a half hour away from a church so she and her siblings held their own Christmas services.

“We would talk about God and the different things we appreciated Him for,” Strandburg said. “I attribute all of that, including wanting Christ in my life, to The Salvation Army. They opened my spiritual eyes.”

by Robert Mitchell