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  • Tara Crutchfield

The Salvation Army

Each month, hundreds of local families visit the Social Services office and Food Pantry for The Salvation Army of East Polk County. The organization offers social services, including financial assistance with rent, food distribution, and operates a homeless shelter. We met with Diana Woodhead, Social Services Director for The Salvation Army Winter Haven Offices serving East Polk County, and Commanding Officer Captain Dominic Blanford to discuss what they do and how the community can help.


SOCIAL SERVICES AND HOMELESS SHELTER

The organization works with several grants to provide this assistance, including the Tampa Electric Company Share program. The Salvation Army provides a food pantry for families in need. “Once a week, we provide food to families in our community. It can be anywhere from 50 to 100 families that come in a day depending on the time of month,” said Diana Woodhead.


The organization stocks its food pantry with donations from many sources, like Feeding Tampa Bay, part of Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger. Every week, The Salvation Army picks up meat close to its expiration date that has been frozen, produce nearing its sell-by date, and items with damaged packaging from Harveys Supermarket, Save A Lot, and ALDI Grocery Store.


The faith-based food pantry receives leftover items from the Auburndale and Winter Haven Wawa through the Harvest Program. Last month they received nearly 4,000 items from donuts to breakfast sandwiches. Once a month, they pick up at least four pallets of damaged items from a Publix warehouse in Lakeland and receive milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and dry goods through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Donated food is stored and sorted in their on-site warehouse and then shelved and packed by volunteers in a pantry across the hall to be picked up by families in need each Wednesday. In the kitchen, a cook prepares community meals every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. “We feed anyone who comes – no questions asked. We just take a first name to log the meal,” said Woodhead.


The number of families in need fluctuates. In September, 287 cases or 1,013 people utilized their food pantry, shelter, and rent/ utility assistance services. That doesn’t include the weekly meals they serve, 473 in the same month. These numbers often swell around the holidays.


The back of the facility houses their women and children’s shelter with dorms for single women, a handicapped-accessible dorm, and one for mothers with children. The shelter has a children’s playroom, dining hall, television area, bathrooms and showers, and a laundry room. The shelter is closed Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm, with exceptions for illness and inclement weather. “We can help the moms that have children of daycare age get daycare through the Early Learning Coalition. We work closely with The Hearth Project, which is part of the Polk County School Board that specifically caters to homeless families with children,” said Woodhead.


The shelter’s caseworker, Dreamalee Lamberti, works closely with its tenets. Woodhead said of Lamberti, “She’s got a lot of knowledge that she can use to help the ladies. She has applied herself since she’s been here to working individually with every person we have in the shelter to put them on the right path and give direction.”


THE ANGEL TREE PROGRAM AND RED KETTLE CAMPAIGN

Corps Officers for Salvation Army of East Polk County, Captains Dominic and Ivelisse Blanford took leadership in Winter Haven last year. “My wife and I have both worked with the Salvation Army for over ten years now,” said Dominic Blanford. The two met at “Camp Keystone,” The Salvation Army’s Camp in Starke, Florida, and married in 2010. The Blanfords are both ordained ministers for The Salvation Army and pastor at its local church.


With the help of longtime staff and volunteers, including social services director, Diana Woodhead who has been with The Salvation Army for over twenty years, Blanford said, “Our goal is to enlighten the community of what we do and what they can do to help support the cause.”


In addition to the shelter, food pantry, and social services, The Salvation Army has a number of programs benefiting the underserved in our community. The Salvation Army Family Store is a volunteer-run thrift store where folks often donate second-hand clothes and household items. Blanford notes that all proceeds earned at The Family Store stay local, supporting their other programs.


A popular program benefiting families who can’t afford Christmas gifts is the Angel Tree Program. “The Angel Tree Program has been in existence since the 80s,” Blanford said. “It gives individuals, families, organizations, and businesses the opportunity to adopt Angels.” According to saangeltree.org, “Once a child or senior adult has been registered and accepted as an Angel, their Christmas wish list is shared with donors in your community who purchase gifts of new clothing and toys. The gifts are distributed to the family to place under their family Christmas tree.”


Distribution of gifts will be done at their administration and worship center on December 15 as a drive-through. ‘Angel’ families can drive up, and volunteers will load the gifts into their vehicles.


“We like to follow up with those families too,” Blanford said. “We like to check on them and see how they’re doing. They aren’t just numbers to us – they’re people. Of course, we’re a religious organization, and they’re God’s children. We want to ensure they’re not statistics to us.” The Salvation Army Commanding Officer noted this is where they can connect families with their other services if needed.


The Angel Tree Program is especially meaningful to Blanford. Growing up in Orlando, he remembers one Christmas when things were a little tight for his family, and his mother applied for the Angel Tree Program. “Now I have the opportunity to be on the other side of it and participate in helping families,” he said.


And of course, who hasn’t seen volunteers ringing the bell outside of grocery stores around the holidays? The Salvation Army is currently gearing up for their signature Red Kettle Campaign. East Polk County has around 20 Publix and Walmart red kettle locations across Winter Haven, Auburndale, Lake Wales, Haines City, and Davenport. Donations made in East Polk stay here to support their programs, says Blanford. “It doesn’t go to Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. It stays in your local community.”


“We like to encourage individuals, families, businesses, civic clubs, schools, churches – anyone who’s able to come out for a couple of hours – to take a couple of shifts,” he said. “We have great support here in this community.” This year, the East Polk Red Kettle Campaign will go from November 27 through December 24, daily from 10 am to 6 pm. Those interested in volunteering for the Red Kettle Campaign can sign up at www. registertoring.com.


Helping hands are always needed both during the holidays and the day-to-day operations of the food pantry and Family Store. “We’re in great need of volunteers,” said Blanford. “COVID has played a role in our decrease in volunteers.” The Salvation Army Captain understands the concerns with COVID and assures they provide gloves and take necessary precautions to keep volunteers safe.


EXPANDING SERVICES

Blanford says he would like to offer more services to the community in the future, an endeavor they are actively working towards. “That breaks our heart, especially when I have single men who come, and I have no shelter for them. Or the situation where we have a family come, but dad can’t stay here, so we have to send them to Lakeland. We’re exploring what we can do to expand services where we can focus on not only families but single men and single women. We may approach the county, the cities, to see what we can do to expand our services,” he said.


The Salvation Army of East Polk County has partnered with TriCounty Human Services and Heart for Winter Haven to mitigate homelessness in the community. “We’ve all come together because we all want the same thing for this community,” said Blanford. “We’ve collaborated to see what we can do to come up with a solution of maybe providing stable housing for families through intensive case management to promote self-sufficiency, alongside this particular building, which we’d like to see become a single women’s and single men’s shelter.”


To sign up to be an Angel or adopt a family in the Angel Tree Program, volunteer for the Red Kettle Campaign, Family Store, or food pantry, or more information on other programs including youth camp and character building and the CAN-U-CARE drive, visit the website or call the phone numbers below.


FB @SalArmyWinterHaven


Angel Tree, Red Kettle Campaign, Camp, Character building

Programs/CAN-U-CARE Drive: (863) 294-7493

Family Store: (863) 401-3583

Social Service/Food Pantry: (863) 291-5107


Photography by Amy Sexson

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