Magazine Exclusive

Working for change in Chelsea

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in Chelsea, Mass., one of the cities hardest hit by the COVID–19 pandemic. Outside of The Salvation Army corps on Chestnut Street, residents arrive to ensure their spot in line for the 10 a.m. food pantry distribution. People are hungry for help.

As Captain Brenda Gonzalez goes on Facebook Live to broadcast the corps’ daily offerings, a line wraps around the building. Mothers, fathers, neighbors, and friends wait to receive the refrigerated boxes that sit on the front steps of the corps. The boxes are full of Atlantic Salmon, fresh produce, and other items, such as food for family pets.

Captains Brenda and Isael Gonzalez, corps officers, anticipate serving thousands on this day, but they’re used to doing it. They’ve served millions of meals at the corps during the pandemic.

COVID-19 hit Chelsea hard. Suffolk County recently neared 100,000 cases, which caused poverty levels to soar beyond pre–pandemic levels. The Chelsea Corps is one of four local Army churches that reside in prominently Spanish–speaking areas. But for the bilingual volunteers and staff at this 132–year–old corps, language barriers are no obstacle.

Parallel to the line of people, motorists also form a line for a drive–thru food distribution. They wait in old minivans full of carpooling individuals and families as well as newer luxury vehicles such as Mercedes and BMWs. People from all backgrounds and economic classes are experiencing food insecurity. The pandemic did not discriminate, nor has The Salvation Army.


Rachel’s story

Rachel, a local artist, arrived at the food pantry an hour early. Being first in line, she swapped pandemic stories with The Salvation Army staff.

“I’m an artist, that’s what I do. During the pandemic it was really hard because business wasn’t great. What I have learned is you have to take it one day at a time, stay safe, do the right thing, and help other people when you can,” says Rachel.

Rachel’s journey began with The Salvation Army in the early 2000s. She attended the Cambridge Corps, which houses a homeless shelter and rehabilitation program, before she discovered Chelsea. She says they played a crucial role in providing her basic needs.

“The corps officers changed my life. I was homeless, an addict, and going through a transition when they took me in with open arms,” says Rachel, who is transgender. “I tell everyone that The Salvation Army is one of the best organizations in Massachusetts. They are accepting of everyone.”


Like father, like daughter

Next to Rachel, a volunteer named Veronica began the day at the corps by prepping for the food drive. Veronica is no stranger to The Salvation Army. “I discovered The Salvation Army in the 1980s through my dad. He was in prison and became a volunteer for the Army through their prison ministry in the Bronx. The experience helped him come to faith. When he got out of jail, he made it his mission to help other people like others helped him. He instilled this message in all of us,” says Veronica.

Today, Veronica wants to carry on her father’s legacy by helping people in her community as she had witnessed through her father. She volunteers, picks up food, and delivers it to many of her neighbors, many of whom are out of work and have multiple children. Veronica loves to volunteer her time whenever she can, yet her agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, makes it difficult to leave her home. “I have a hard time stepping out of the house. There have been times where I haven’t left the house in a month. The Salvation Army to me is therapy,” Veronica said.


Closing time

The food distribution ends and the lines wind down, but the work continues. Hundreds of empty cardboard boxes must be cleaned up and recycled.

Tomorrow, another line will wrap around the building; people on foot and in cars. But rather than take the day off, staff and volunteers at the Chelsea Corps will march on and meet them at their point of need. They will keep hope alive.

by Kit Geary
photos by Heather MacFarlane