By Andrea Culletto  

A man wandered down the rain-soaked street toward London’s East End, his eyes searching. He bypassed inviting shops and aromatic restaurants. It wasn’t until he entered the most destitute area of town—home to beggars, street urchins, thieves, gamblers and prostitutes—that he stopped. This was what he’d been searching for, the refuse of British society. 

William Booth was on a mission—a mission of salvation. After beginning his ministry in 1852, he noticed that those most in need were either too uncomfortable to enter the church or outright unwelcome within. So, he and his wife, Catherine, left their comfortable parish to teach on the fringe of society. They believed spiritual salvation should be for all, regardless of physical circumstances. 

Converts took hold of these teachings and spread them among their compatriots at an astonishing rate—they were a force to be reckoned with, a veritable army of salvation. When William Booth came across the phrase, “The Christian Mission is a volunteer army” in a printer’s proof of the 1878 Christian Mission annual report, he crossed out the word “volunteer” and replaced it with “salvation.” And so The Salvation Army was born.

But the poor needed much more than spiritual salvation. They also needed food, shelter, medical care and advocacy. The couple and their followers didn’t shy away from the challenge.

Since then, the organization has grown to encompass individuals from all cultural, ethnic and faith backgrounds. In the 1890s the movement made its way to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where organizers stood on street corners handing out food and doing what they could to help those in need. Here, the movement bloomed. 

Today, The Salvation Army of La Crosse offers three meals a day, 365 days a year. They shelter men, women and children. In addition, they provide a food pantry, rent and utility assistance, Christmas dinners, an angel giving tree, a back-to-school program, a sack lunch summer program and much more. “Each Salvation Army is different,” said Nick Ragner, director of development for The Salvation Army of La Crosse. “They play the role their communities need them to play. Where there’s a gap in services, they fill in.” 

The Red Kettle Campaign

A Sparta-area farmer thought his life was over after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It ran in his family and he knew what it meant. He sold his pig farm, fell into depression and took to drinking. He didn’t expect to survive. 

But he did. 

Unfortunately, his disease had already taken an emotional and financial toll. “For a few years, he was in and out of the shelter, or he’d sneak into garages,” Ragner said. “He was just having a really tough time, feeling sorry for himself. He had this ongoing mindset of ‘there’s so much I’d need to do to get out of this rut’ that it turned into years.”

He began working with a case worker from The Salvation Army, but it wasn’t easy. “He’s a manly man,” Ragner said. “He wanted to walk out and just keep going, but the case manager said, ‘No, we’re going to do this; we’re going to get this taken care of.” It was just the inspiration he needed.

With help from The Salvation Army, the man obtained VA assistance and Social Security, which allowed him to afford housing. “After he got housed, he wouldn’t stop dancing in our lobby,” Ragner said. “He doesn’t consider any staff as case managers; he refers to them as his friends. He’s a pretty special guy. I can’t imagine seeing him without a smile on his face. He had a bad outlook on things and now he’s turned it around.” 

Nick Ragner and Kelly MansonThis happy ending was made possible by funding from The Salvation Army of La Crosse’s Red Kettle Campaign. The Salvation Army is known for its iconic bell ringers, standing outside stores during the holiday season. (When my kids were young, I would let each of them drop a dollar into the bucket whenever we passed. It was magical to watch their faces light up at this simple gesture. Giving back made us all feel great—it still does. What we didn’t know at the time is that those little donations add up in a big way.) 

“Bell ringing accounts for 35 percent of our annual budget,” Ragner said. “It allows us to do what we do on an annual basis. We wouldn’t be able to provide a night’s stay for anybody or the lunches we do, for example. Bell ringing allows us to do what we do in just two months of fundraising.” 

Collective Match Day

Ragner received a call that nearly made him fall out of his chair. “I’d like to match up to $10,000 on Tuesday to leverage and make sure people are donating,” the caller said. 

This is an impressive example of a “collective match,” when a business or community member pledges to match funds raised in a given time period and the community rises to the challenge. 

This donor’s pledge was remarkably successful. “We ended up making $13,000 that day and they matched the whole thing,” Ragner said. “On a normal Tuesday we only make $3,000 or $4,000, but we ended up bringing in nearly $30,000 because of that match.”

Christmas Food Baskets and the Angel Giving Tree

It’s hard to find the money for Christmas when you’re barely making rent. Tragedy doesn’t take the season into account before striking, and many families find themselves struggling to survive during the happiest time of the year. 

“Every year we sign up 1,000 children and 500 families to get Christmas food baskets and presents for the kids,” Ragner said. “We make sure they get presents and a traditional Christmas dinner. Presents can really help normalize things for kids.”

Local community members “adopt” families in need, donating toys, food and money to The Salvation Army, which are then given to the family on distribution day. “It’s very touching for our staff and volunteers to see,” Ragner said. “Everyone is so excited.” 

The Salvation Army of La Crosse serves those in La Crosse County, but difficulty knows no geographical bounds. One year, the group was approached by a mother and two children from another county who were fleeing a domestic abuse situation. “She had never had a job and now had to provide for two kids,” Ragner said. “So we, as an organization, adopted her.”

Kelley Manson, a development team member, spearheaded the effort, collecting food, pots and pans, quality household items, Christmas presents and more—all to uplift the family in this trying time. “When she came and got the donations, she started crying and hugged Kelley,” Ragner said. “That’s what The Salvation Army is. Technically only county people can sign up, but we recognized she needed help and that’s the point.”

Coats for Kids

Winter in Wisconsin is unforgiving. Some days it’s inconceivable to walk outside without a coat, but that’s reality for numerous local children whose parents lack the funds to supply them with suitable winter gear. Many layer on other clothing items or simply go without, leaving them at risk for frostbite and other cold weather concerns. 

The Salvation Army of La Crosse has partnered with Catholic Charities to solve this problem. The two organizations work in tandem, with The Salvation Army collecting donations and Catholic Charities distributing them. “We have a lot of great partnerships with community agencies,” Ragner said. “We all hold each other up.”

Back 2 School

The Salvation Army’s “Back 2 School” event on Aug. 15 was a bustle of activity, with children receiving backpacks, school supplies and even fresh haircuts. As with the winter coat program, the group partnered with Catholic Charities for the event. “We give up to 500 kids back-to-school clothing,” Ragner said. “It really affects their self-esteem. They’re wanting to fit in, and brand-new sneakers and a fresh T-shirt can be pretty important.” 

Christmas Boutique

“People face really hard things, things that are hard to talk about,” Ragner said, recalling one family in particular, a mother and her teenage daughter who had fallen on hard times and wound up homeless in Black River Falls. The police drove them to The Salvation Army shelter in La Crosse. “They were really nervous and didn’t know what to expect,” Ragner said. “They didn’t have coats or anything, only the clothes they had at the time. And it was winter in Wisconsin.”

The Salvation Army got them properly clothed and connected them with case managers and other resources, including the local school district where the mother was hired. The family stayed in the shelter for a few months before moving into a place of their own, helped with a deposit and first month’s rent by The Salvation Army. 

Years later, the woman still works for the school district, lives in the same home, and her daughter is now in college. “Being able to save money and use resources helped her stay self-sufficient,” Ragner said. “Everything is going really well for her now. I don’t think she’ll have to worry about homelessness again.”

This is an incredible story that was made possible in part by funds raised at The Salvation Army’s Christmas Boutique, which resells donated Christmas decorations. The proceeds support families in need. Who knew that old wreath could be so powerful? 

Emergency Relief

In late August, Vernon County was racked with storms, flooding many homes. The Salvation Army provided over 300 emergency flood kits—including a broom, squeegee mop and gloves—to those in need. It doesn’t seem like much, but it made a difference. A friend whose house had flooded reached out to Ragner on Facebook. “He sent a picture and said, ‘I want to let you know we’re really grateful for this flood kit because the squeegee mop is really helping us clean up,’” Ragner said. “You could see where they’d cleaned. It’s not everything, but to know we have these supplies after experiencing what we’d never thought we would have experienced makes a huge difference.” 

The Salvation Army also has an emergency response canteen, which they use to serve meals, provide a bathroom and offer a place for first responders to relax.

MealsMeal Programs

Ragner noticed an older man who wasn’t staying in the shelter or participating in the meal program. This piqued his curiosity, so he struck up a conversation and discovered that the Army vet came for the camaraderie. “He said, ‘I like to sit at a table with people of different backgrounds and hear their stories,’” Ragner said. “Meals are open to the community and here’s this guy that didn’t necessarily need to use the services but did because it gave him time to socialize with friends and neighbors, build support systems, make friends, share experiences and combat loneliness.”

Emergency Shelter

A man fell in with the wrong crowd, exposing him to extreme gang violence that led to unhealthy drinking and financial instability. When he became homeless, he went to The Salvation Army’s emergency shelter. 

“He only stayed for three weeks,” Ragner said. That was all it took. “I don’t think he needed handholding, just someone to be there for him during that tough time as he evaluated, ‘What am I doing with my life? Why am I at where I’m at?’ The Salvation Army was just a facilitator.” 

The man now has a job and a home. He stops by every few days to volunteer and give back. “He tells me, ‘I don’t know what I’d be doing without The Salvation Army,’” Ragner said. “People just need a little bit of a hand up. Hearing their stories is pretty special and heartwarming. You have those bad days and it reminds you of why you’re ultimately here—just being a human being, being there for others.” 

For more information on The Salvation Army of La Crosse and how you can get involved, visit www.salvationarmylacrosse.org. You can also get updates on Facebook and Twitter.