Little bell ringer

Paisleigh Hock helps her great-granddad Rob Keene ring the bell for the Smyth County unit of the Salvation Army at Food City in Chilhowie.

Sue Thompson has gone through difficult times with Smyth County’s Salvation Army unit, but none as hard as this year. The longtime unit leader sees a great need for the helping agency, but, right now, she can’t envision a future for the ministry.

Monday afternoon, she issued an appeal to the community to see if it’s possible to save the local unit.

“Once more I am letting people in Smyth County know that the Salvation Army is in serious trouble.” She warned, “If we do not have people signing up as volunteers this may be our last year.”

The unit’s 2019 Red Kettle campaign is now under way. With a goal of $50,000, more than 300 volunteers are needed to pull off the annual event.

Thompson is more than discouraged. “I feel very sad about it,” she said.

Thompson, who prior to stepping up to help lead the unit this year, served 15 years as the unit’s chair. Some in the unit have affectionately dubbed her, “Colonel Thompson.” Despite that tough moniker, she’s got a soft spot for individuals facing their times of great need. She’s been the voice on the other end of the line as numerous people have reached out to the Salvation Army for emergency needs. 

Of the hundreds of calls the local Salvation Army answers each year, food has always been one of the greatest needs.

A few years ago, Thompson shared her philosophy: “If people ask me for food, I will get it for them. I decided a long time ago, I wouldn’t go to bed at night and think a child might be hungry when I could have helped.” She knows some individuals may abuse the system, but as a woman of faith Thompson leaves them to a higher power. “We use a lot of money for food. No one is ever turned down. My personal feeling is if someone is lying, the Lord can handle that.”

Beyond food, the other major requests that come into Smyth County’s Salvation Army include assistance with electricity bills, fuel oil, eyeglasses, water and prescriptions. The agency will also sometimes help with a night of lodging for stranded motorists who are unable to pay for an overnight stay or meals.

In an interview several years ago, Thompson reflected on the need. “There are a lot of problems most people don’t know about.” She said hearing people’s personal stories helps drive home how hard life can be. “I hear so much of it…. It’s kind of tough. I feel badly for people.”

Helping people without discrimination is at the essence of the Salvation Army’s mission. “An evangelical part of the universal Christian Church,” the “ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination,” according to https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/.

Last year, the Smyth County unit helped 478 people, providing food, help with utilities, eyeglasses, prescriptions, fuel and other emergency needs.

Right now, the local Salvation Army needs help to work the kettles. For many years, Thompson explained, the unit had a core group of volunteers that took care of its needs. However, most of those people were from the World War II and Korean War eras. More than half, she said, have died with most of the remaining members in their 80s. Thompson is among the ministry’s octogenarians.

Over the years, Thompson has always appealed for more volunteers, especially younger people. At one time, she said the only qualification is honesty.

Monday, she implored physically able community members to “please sign up to ring the bell.”

Collections are under way at the Food City stores in Chilhowie and Marion, Walmart and Ingles. Later this week, collections will begin at the ABC store. Anyone who can volunteer is asked to call Thompson at 276-783-4565 or Jim Bishop at 783-8816.

Donations may be made at the kettles or mailed to PO Box 133, Marion, VA 24354.

While the work hasn’t always been easy, Thompson reflected that she has “very much enjoyed” her years with the Salvation Army. She cited the camaraderie with the other unit members and volunteers and knowing that she was doing something to help people. She thought of all the businesses that have supported the unit’s work with gratitude.

She fell quiet for a few beats and then said, “Unless a lot of people step up, this will be the last year.”

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