A few weeks ago, I was invited to join the Salvation Army Women’s Ministry luncheon held every Wednesday at the Harlingen Salvation Army Corps. I had never been before, yet the ladies greeted me as if they’d known me for a while. Evidently, this was a happy group of ladies, and I felt right at home.

When organizing around the house, I find many items in good condition but without a function or place, so I clean and pack them to deliver at the Harlingen’s Salvation Army Thrift Shop.  At one point, it is more about them helping me dispose of items and less about me helping my community. A brief conversation with the young man helping me unload the things made me realize there is much more to this donation.

Before the luncheon, Retired Major Kelly Durant, interim corps officer of the Harlingen Salvation Army (SA), agreed to an interview. Major Durant retired a few years ago after serving in South and Central America, Oklahoma, and Atlanta. He and his wife, Regina Durant, were called to fill this position until June 2023.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask.

But first things first. The Salvation Army is the inspiration of  Minister William Booth, whose desire to help the poor, homeless, and destitute led him to leave the traditional church and bring the gospel to the streets of London in 1852. By Booth’s death in 1912, his ministry had grown, cementing the foundations for lifesaving work that continue today in over 133 countries.

According to the Salvation Army’s website, when Booth read a printer’s proof of the 1878 Christian Mission annual report, he noticed the statement, “The Christian Mission is a volunteer army.” Crossing out the words “volunteer army,” he penned in “Salvation Army,” and the rest is history.    

Booth’s followers became known as the Salvationists, who converted 250,000 Christians between 1881-1885. Today, these soldiers of Christ keep busy in the Rio Grande Valley, assisting our community in twenty different categories. Twenty. These categories include help with addiction, bill payment, disaster relief, family counseling, health, hunger, life skills, poverty, prison outreach, veteran and worship services, and youth programs, among others. My excess clothing and items are just a drop in a deep bucket—a red kettle, to be precise. Much more is needed, and I start by sharing their story.

Nydia Tapia – Gonzales – The red kettle campaign began in 1891 to cover the cost of the London community Christmas meal. We still see this iconic red kettle across the RGV during Christmas. Can you tell me about the Christmas meal program here?

Major Kelly Durant – In the early days, we had soup kitchens because people were extremely poor, and the SA served direct meals. We still do that in many locations. However, across the United States, there is a more significant need to apply the money to social services such as paying late bills for people and purchasing food. These days meals are served in the manner of food boxes. For Christmas, we invite the public for a meal – last Christmas; we had 65 people, so we shared a good time with people who usually wouldn’t come.

NTG: There are 20 different categories of services the SA provides in the RGV. Each SA Corps office assesses the needs of each community, and from there, local programs are developed. Which one of these services keeps this office busiest and why?

MKD: I would say social services is the biggest thing. You notice we have chairs for about 20 people here, and we have a continuous flow of phone calls and visits from people seeking help. This county has many immigrants starting a new life; they can’t find jobs or are behind on rent. We proportion the maximum amount to help people. Each month we manage six to ten thousand dollars which we try to divide between 30 to 40 people at least.

We could be helping 300 to 400 more if we had the money. We feel so bad for those we cannot help. We prepare about 200 boxes a month food boxes for them to have at least the essential food items. We also distribute fans, window AC units, and coats in partnership with Tim’s coats of the RGV.

NTG: What is the most significant change after the global pandemic?

MKD: People are less social and stay to themselves, which causes them not to reach out until they are at a more desperate point – getting evicted or having an urgent crisis. Many things could have been avoided if they had contacted us sooner.

NTG: Is this issue among veterans? Your website states that veterans make up 8% of the homeless population in the U.S.

MKD: Yes. We are here all the time for counseling. We ask those who come seeking help if they want to pray, and we pray with those who agree. Because of our training, we are prepared to understand and listen and advise as best we can. We also refer them to someone or some organization that can help them in cases we cannot. We have many partners in the community.

NTG: When we donate clothes and furniture, what is the process that happens after we drop these items at your store?

MKD:  Across the United States, thrift stores support adult rehabilitation programs. All the funds are applied to benefit those in addiction relief programs. The SA assists them in starting a new life. Because we are a smaller operation, we apply the funds to pay for administrative office expenses such as bills and maintenance in our store in Harlingen.  In addition, we put clothing on sale at very low prices. We attract many people who can’t afford them otherwise. We also donate clothes, mattresses, and furniture to disaster victims who lost their homes in fires or other natural disasters.

NTG: People can donate money to a specific SA Corps location through the website. Are people donating to this location in Harlingen?

MKD: Every week, I get a report. On average, a couple of thousand dollars a week comes in, which significantly helps. Those looking for a legacy can donate part of their inheritance specifically allocated to the SA location of their choice.

MKD: We had our best years 4 to 5 years ago. After, I would say things have slowed down a lot. Aside from my wife and me, we had two staff members, and now only one part-time employee. This puts more stress on all of us. We can do more with more staff, but we work with a slim budget.

NTG: How many people volunteer here?

MKD: We have a great group of volunteers, including retirees and mothers whose children attend school during the day. I’d say we have an average of two volunteers a day. We have five to six volunteers to help sort toys and man the red kettle locations across town during Christmas. We had to pay some people last year because we could not get enough volunteers. Sometimes people, because of their age, believe they cannot be of help, but that is not the case.  Everybody can help and make a difference.

NTG: What would a volunteer here in Harlingen expect to do:

MKD: They would help with files, help with translations, and the food pantry. Every day I buy food, and we need to have 30 boxes ready to be given out daily.  

NTG: Can people donate nonperishable food to the local Salvation Army?

MKD: Yes! But those items need to be delivered here in the administrative office where people come to pick up boxes. The HEB this year gave us less than they usually do, but during Christmas, they donated five thousand dollars of turkey vouchers, which allowed us to help 200 families.   

NTG: Thank you for inviting me to join the Women’s Ministry Luncheon. What is the primary purpose of this group?

MKD: Years ago, the SA discovered that many young mothers need orientation to support their families. The weekly luncheons include presentations on crafts, finances, healthy cooking, and educational activities. This ministry helps the community, for example visiting nursing and senior homes. Think of it as a social club where you don’t have to pay much, even though the ladies make small donations to improve these programs.

NTG: A category listed on your services skill development.

NTG: Are the needs different here in the Valley compared to the rest of the country?

MKD: What needs to happen differently here is that we need bilingual people. The SA seeks to appoint bilingual people in this area and all of Texas. That is the primary specialty, but there is also more poverty here. For example, McAllen has a big operation to feed the poor and homeless. They serve 400 to 500 meals a day with a staff of 40. Here, we are ready to cover the need and ramp up the assistance, but we need funding.

Sometimes local governments step in to help with emergency funds.  The main thing here on the border is the people who arrive with nothing. We give out clothing vouchers and do our best to cater to each location.

For example, in Atlanta, we worked with Hispanic kids involved in soccer because, from those programs, we got the mothers to join our programs and assist them with integrating into American society. One thing leads to another on how we operate in each city.

Another example is Mexico, where the SA has quite a few orphan homes, something we don’t have in the US because social services are handled differently for child care. That is how the SA serves the people best according to country and circumstance.

NTG: What would you tell the people of the Valley about what you do and how they can help and support the SA’s programs?

MKD: Many people are unaware that the Salvation Army has much to offer. I want to encourage them to visit and get to know what we do.

As you know, we are day ministers and have a church, too, but many attend other churches, which is OK. We have so many other things like the Women’s and Youth Ministries. We would like to involve the community so that people will benefit and achieve a better life. We have an advisory board, too—so many ways to give back, and we would love for people to get involved. We invite everyone to get involved.

Photo from the Salvation Army National Blog.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact the Salvation Army of Harlingen, Texas, by calling            956-423-2454.

Non-perishable food and money donations can be dropped off at the same office at 201 E. Monroe Avenue in Harlingen.

To donate gently used belongings, drop them off at the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store at 114 E. Jackson Avenue in Harlingen.

To schedule a pickup of furniture or heavy and bulky items, please call 956-425-5553

For all the information related to the Salvation Army, please visit salvationarmyusa.org and for local Corps information, enter the zip code and search. Monetary donations can be made at this site if you click on the “Donate Locally” menu bar.

Forbes list of America’s Top 100 Charities lists the Salvation Army at number 4, serving domestic needs with $2.3B in private donations and a charitable commitment of 82%